Academic journal article Presidential Studies Quarterly

The Contemporary Presidency: Managing White House-Congressional Relations: Observations from Inside the Process

Academic journal article Presidential Studies Quarterly

The Contemporary Presidency: Managing White House-Congressional Relations: Observations from Inside the Process

Article excerpt

The complex dance between the president and Congress is perhaps one of the most misunderstood relationships in American government. Translating citizen preference into law and policy is at the very core of American representative democracy. The interaction between the White House and Capitol Hill is where much of this "translating" occurs. However, rivalry between the president and Congress fundamentally affects the linkage between voters and government. A variety of factors, such as our constitutional design, a variety of constituencies, varying terms of office, weak political parties, divided party control of government, pluralism, and political individualism have a direct impact on the capacity of a president to work with Congress (Thurber 1991, 1996b).

We attempt to improve the understanding of executive-legislative working relationships by suggesting alternative ways to analyze the conduct between these two institutions by combining our firsthand experiences while working on the staffs of Presidents Bush and Clinton and as longtime academic observers of the rivalry.

Much of the research to date, as well as conventional wisdom among reporters and pundits, suffers from a common flaw: analyzing the relationship between Congress and the president, principally from the standpoint of the president (Peterson [1990] and Collier [1997] make similar arguments). This is not surprising since most who study executive-legislative relations are presidential scholars (Laski 1940; Corwin 1957; Rossiter 1960; Burn 1963, 1973; Cronin 1980; Neustadt 1980; Bond, Fleisher, and Kurtz 1996). Peterson (1990) calls this approach "presidency centered" (see Pfiffner [1996] and Thurber [1991, 1996a, 1996b] for balance of presidential and congressional viewpoints on the relationship). Most of the existing literature assumes the president is the central actor in the congressional arena. Whether he "wins" or "loses" is often central to this approach. This model also shapes how the press and the public think about the role of the president and Congress. The public often assumes that when a new president gets elected he has a policy mandate that should automatically move through Congress. Success or failure then hinges on how much and how quickly he moves his proposed legislation through the lawmaking process.

Despite a recognition by scholars that the president and Congress are "separate institutions sharing power" (Neustadt 1980) with a constitutionally and politically built-in rivalry (Thurber 1995, 1996b) or that a "tandem institution" perspective is more complete than a "presidency-centered" approach (Peterson 1990), many contend that the true test for a "successful" or "influential" president is how much legislation he can push through Capitol Hill within the first one hundred days. Our White House experience differs from this measure of success.

We will present three aspects of the president's interactions with Congress that, if incorporated into analysts' thinking about this subject, will enhance our understanding of the relationship. First, we suggest that the "reciprocal influence relationship" between the White House and Congress merits more attention. Second, we highlight the lack of appreciation for the trade-offs involved in managing relations with Congress contained in much of the scholarly and popular writing on the subject. Third, analysts devote too much time assessing outputs such as roll call votes, vetoes sustained, or presidential support scores in measuring presidential influence on Capitol Hill, rather than other measures of success. Developing a more complete understanding of White House-congressional affairs requires an equal amount of focus on "inputs" (consultation, building trust, eliminating items on the agenda, as well as varying strategies based on the type of policy under consideration) and institutional variables (lobbying the House versus the Senate and dealing with varying conditions of party control) (see Thurber 1996a on impact of policy type on the relationship). …

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