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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Limits on Presidential Sausage-Making

There’s been plenty of debate here and elsewhere about the White House strategy on health care reform, and particularly the issue of exactly how prescriptive the President should have been in the past or might be in the future in specifying the legislative provisions that are or aren’t essential for him.
That’s all fine, but there’s a growing tendency among Obama critics to forget that the President can’t just come up with a specific bill and get it to the House or Senate floor. Matt Yglesias offers a pertinent reminder about the separation of powers:

[L]et’s recall that Obama didn’t decide to leave the details of the health overhaul to Congress. That’s just how American political institutions work. I heartily agree that this isn’t the best way for political institutions to work; there’s a lot to be said for a system in which the executive (which is less hostage to parochial interests and possesses more policy expertise) to write proposals that the legislature can either accept or reject. But our institutions don’t work that way, have never worked that way, and couldn’t be made to work that way without scrapping the whole constitution.

Each House of Congress has its distinct procedures, its zealously-guarded turf, its baronial committee and subcommittee chairs (and ranking minority members), its own schedules, and (particularly with the respect of the Senate) its arcane and clubby “traditions.” These factors, while frustrating and often irrational, cannot be wished away or abolished by fiat. The closest thing to a pure presidential coup on major legislation that I can recall was the famous Reagan Budget battle of 1981, when administration officials exploited a then-obscure procedure called “reconciliation” and then created a floor vote in the House over a substitute budget bill almost entirely written by the Office and Management and Budget and a few congressional allies, effectively preempting legislative powers over a vast array of provisions. It was a very rare event, and Congress has worked hard ever since to make sure it never happens again.
There are ways, theoretically, to increase the executive branch’s legislative role. In my home state of Georgia, the governor has his or her own floor leaders (in addition to the partisan chiefs) who formally submit not only budget legislation but a full-scale administration agenda pre-drafted into legislative language. Special committees could be set up to streamline complex legislature and make it easier for executives to obtain a decisive result (it actually took some doing to keep the number of congressional committees dealing with health care reform down to three in the House and two in the Senate).
But in the end, the President, for all his power, can place his imprimatur on legislation only via intermediaries whose loyalty to his agenda rarely extends to details. You can fault Barack Obama for not weighing in earlier or more often as the sausage was made on health care reform, but in the end, the meat-grinder belongs to others.

One comment on “Limits on Presidential Sausage-Making

  1. pjcamp on

    A while back, you were the one who suggested that Obama would overwhelm the opposition as soon as he released his mighty electronic grassroots troops.
    So where the hell are they?
    Sure, he can’t write a bill, but he allegedly as the power to exert tremendous targeted pressure — except he won’t. And he criticizes anyone who does.
    So far, I’m quite disappointed in his administration. He seems to prefer being a passive recipient of policy rather than a leader. That bothers me. It gives the appearance of being rolled.
    The thing is that politics ain’t beanbag, and it also ain’t community organizing. When you organize a community, everybody is more or less on the same page. But in this case, the extent to which I win defines the extent to which my insurance company loses. That’s an arena where hardball must be played or threatened to be played to push recalcitrant companies off their dimes. They are playing. He’s not. So I’m on the verge of losing.


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