The Contemporary Presidency: Executive Ambition versus Congressional Ambivalence

By Farrier, Jasmine | Presidential Studies Quarterly, June 2010 | Go to article overview

The Contemporary Presidency: Executive Ambition versus Congressional Ambivalence


Farrier, Jasmine, Presidential Studies Quarterly


Despite my misgivings, I have acquiesced in some of the administration's proposals [on the Patriot Act] because it is important to preserve national unity in this time of national crisis and to move the legislative process forward.

--Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT, U.S. Congress 2001, S. 10548)

Five previous Presidents have had this {fast-track/trade promotion} authority. What has happened to us? Well, we import more and we export less and the trade deficit rises. We talk in this bill about displaced workers ... I am pretty sure they are some of the folks in my district who are losing their jobs.

--Representative Charles Norwood (R-GA, U.S. Congress 2002, H. 5973)

Virtually every problem we've encountered [in Iraq] was predicted before the war by this committee, by outside experts... The administration was dead wrong in its assumptions... But now what do we do?

--Senator Joseph Biden (D-DE, U.S. Congress 2004a, 3)

I don't trust this {Base Realignment and Closure} process. Some people say if you do the commission, it takes it out of politics. Who believes that?

--Senator Trent Lott (R-MS, U.S. Congress 2004b, S. 5573)

So ... we have a political gun at our heads that we can't afford to say that we know better [on the Troubled Assets Relief Program].

--Representative Charles Rangel (D-NY, U.S. Congress 2008a, H. 10756)

Congress does not have a clear and consistent view of its role in the separation of powers system. Sometimes members describe their own institution as having a pathological inability to deal with an important national issue, but at other times, even regarding the same issue months or years later, members argue the opposite and say that Congress actually does have a key role to play. This article shows how and why Congress is particularly ambivalent about delegating authority on issues that address the national interest but have local consequences and on issues that pressure members to act quickly to stem a "crisis." This pattern, which I call the cycle of ambivalence, is reflected in a cycle that has different permutations in each area, but generally follows a rhythm of delegation of power, followed by expressions of regret, followed by more delegation.

In the first part of the cycle, members of the House and Senate vote to give up member, committee, or majority party power over policy making, often in response to presidential calls for reform or quick action. During this time, which can be crisis driven or a response to perceived congressional paralysis on a long-standing issue, members openly discuss Congress's strengths and weaknesses in dealing with the policy dilemma at hand, as well as the merits of the traditional legislative process that allows Congress to delay, change, and deliberate over different alternatives. In the second part of the cycle, months or years later, after the delegation has expired or in a critical reaction to the president's or another entity's use of the delegated power, individual members launch a barrage of attempts to oversee, delay, or undermine the decisions stemming from the delegation, even if the members supported the original transfer of power. Yet these efforts to regain leverage over the policy usually have limited or temporary success. In the third part of the cycle, when a new iteration of the same policy problem resurfaces, members opt to delegate power again. This cycle has played out in different ways in recent decades.

There are multiple forces driving each part of the cycle of ambivalence, as seen in the epigraphs at the beginning of this article. Debates for and against delegating power show that members of Congress, like the president, have different "hats" that are often at odds. Senator Patrick Leahy expressed hesitance in his support of the Patriot Act, pushed by an opposition-party president, but will go along with it in the best interest of the nation as he sees it. …

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