Presidential Success on the Substance of Legislation

By Barrett, Andrew W.; Eshbaugh-Soha, Matthew | Political Research Quarterly, March 2007 | Go to article overview

Presidential Success on the Substance of Legislation


Barrett, Andrew W., Eshbaugh-Soha, Matthew, Political Research Quarterly


The topic of presidential success in Congress is central to the study of American politics. Yet existing research does not sufficiently assess the president's success at shaping the substance of legislation. To help remedy this deficiency, the authors measure the degree of presidential success on 191 important statutes from 1965 to 2000 and find that presidents typically accept significant concessions to ensure passage of legislation. Using factor and regression analyses, the authors demonstrate that several factors-including the presence of unified government, the president's approval ratings, and the point in a president's tenure-affect the extent to which the president receives what he wants concerning legislative content.

Keywords: president; Congress; bargaining; legislation

The key to success in the American lawmaking process is building winning coalitions through bargaining and compromise (Arnold 1990; Elving 1995; Jones 1994; Neustadt 1960; Peterson 1990). Over the past four decades, scholars have devoted considerable attention to assessing how successful presidents are in navigating this process, primarily focusing on tallying presidential wins, losses, and levels of presidential support derived from roll-call votes. Missing from this literature are explorations of the consequences that battles between the executive and legislative branches may have on the substance of legislation. As Neustadt first stated in 1960, presidents must bargain with legislators in our system of separate institutions sharing powers to achieve their policy goals. Neither Neustadt nor subsequent scholarship, however, answers how much presidents bargain over legislative content to develop winning congressional coalitions. This question is significant because the president may win a political battle with Congress by signing a bill he supports into law but lose the legislative war if he has bargained away provisions he desired most to ensure its passage.

In this article, we explain variation in the degree of presidential success on the content of 191 important laws enacted over a thirty-six-year period. Our new ordinal measure of success-which focuses on the president's give-and-take with Congress over legislative content-encourages us to consider that some tools that do not affect presidential wins and losses may impact the content of legislation. As such, we find that the honeymoon period (which decreases success) and presidential approval ratings (which increase success) affect the president's success on the substance of legislation differently than roll-call measures of success. Additionally, we find that Presidents Johnson through Clinton generally compromised when they signed legislation, even though they received most of what they wanted substantively. We also find that conditions of unified government increase the president's success in Congress. Lame-duck status and congressional gridlock affect the substance of legislation as well.

The Degree of Presidential Success in Congress

Richard Neustadt first argued in 1960 that presidential power is the power to persuade and the power to persuade is the power to bargain. Despite more than forty years of research, most scholarship on presidential-congressional relations has not sufficiently tapped the give-and-take over the substance of legislation that transpires during the lawmaking process. Most studies operationalize presidential success in Congress as presidential box scores (such as those produced by Congressional Quarterly); success rates on roll-call votes (Bond and Fleisher 1990); or support scores, which measure the percentage of votes on which a legislator supports the president's position (Edwards 1989). Each of these measures aids our understanding of presidential success in Congress, but each also is limited (Bond, Fleisher, and Krutz 1996; Covington 1986; Jones 1994; Lindsay and Steeger 1993). Although each gauges how often the president wins on a set of bills or how many legislators support him on a series of votes, they cannot account for the degree of presidential success on legislative content.

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