President Makes Poor Partner With Congress

All right class, welcome back to Congress 101. I hope you enjoyed your President’s Day break – I know the Congress enjoyed theirs.

Today’s lecture will cover relationships between the executive and legislative branches of the federal government.

Your professor served with five different presidents during his 26 years in Congress. Some of those presidents got along well with Congress and others did not. And this had little to do with party affiliation. Let’s take a look at those five presidents in chronological order.

Jimmy Carter. President Carter was a bright, well-meaning individual totally lacking in experience in national government when he was elected in 1976. He had served as governor of Georgia and didn’t have a particularly high opinion of the Georgia state legislature. He assumed congressmen were much like his local legislators.

Also, he was somewhat of a loner and didn’t fully appreciate the need to consult the legislative branch. He got off to a rocky start with Congress and never fully recovered during the four years of his presidency

Ronald Reagan. President Reagan also had only served as a governor without national experience, but he hired excellent people who fully understood Congress. Members of both parties were treated with respect and quickly figured out that Reagan was a formidable politician. Even Democrats, who rarely voted with Reagan, liked him personally, and he won some victories in Congress that lesser politicians might have lost.

George H.W. Bush (Bush 41). Papa Bush was the only one of the five who had actually served in Congress (two terms as a congressman from Houston) and brought a deep understanding of the legislative process to the job. He did the little things, like inviting the entire Florida delegation and all members of the Rules Committee to accompany him when he presented the Presidential Medal of Freedom to Congressman Claude Pepper on his deathbed at Walter Reed Hospital.

I gave a genuinely good man a few votes he might not otherwise have received.

Bill Clinton. President Clinton was the most complex figure of the five. Clinton worked hard to win the trust and support of his own party in Congress, and the Republicans didn’t know what to make of him. He won all the chips in a high-stakes poker game with then-House Speaker Newt Gingrich over closing down the government in 1995, and left Gingrich walking out of the White House in a barrel.

Some Republicans secretly admired Clinton's skill, but they never really liked him and accordingly overplayed their hand again on impeachment.

George W. Bush. The current President Bush treats Congress as a nuisance that is to be barely tolerated. He came to the presidency surrounded by people like Vice President Dick Cheney who believed it was high time to make the executive branch the dominant branch of government and to take as much power away from Congress as possible.

A significant part of this strategy was to withhold information from Congress. That may have worked when Tom DeLay was there to crack the whip over recalcitrant Republicans, but DeLay has fallen from power and Bush is now on his own.

There is an old saying in politics that what goes around, comes around, and the current occupant of the White House is about to find out how much trouble an aroused Congress can be. And remember, students, President Bush has a Congress of his own political party. Just think how bad things will be if the Democrats win one or both houses in November.

How did President Bush get to this point?

It may be that President Bush neglected to carefully read the U.S. Constitution. You see, that venerated document makes it clear that the legislative and executive branches are co-equal. In fact, the very first article of the constitution established the legislative branch, giving it the power to levy taxes and appropriate funds.

For a great deal of our history (until two fellows by the name of Roosevelt became president), the executive branch was the weaker of the two branches. In an effort to downgrade Congress, Bush treats the legislative branch like poor cousins.

Employees of the executive were ordered not to tell the Congress the full cost of the proposed Medicare prescription drug plan prior to the vote (it passed by only a single vote).

Other executive branch employees told Congress as little as possible about President Bush’s NSA surveillance program, something that is of arguable constitutionality and is in direct violation of a statute passed by Congress.

And now we have the granddaddy of them all…The executive branch did not bother to inform legislative leaders of its own party about the plan to turn over operation of six of our busiest ports to a company controlled by the United Arab Emirates, a country that was home to two of the 9/11 terrorists and which has served as a transit point for terrorist money and for nuclear technology headed for some of our greatest enemies.

It should come as no great surprise that congressmen and senators of both parties have spoken out with alarm about the plan to turn over operation of ports in New York, New Jersey, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Miami and New Orleans to a UAE company. Now President Bush and his minions are frantically going to Congress to explain why this deal is really not so bad.

Further complicating things for the Bush team is that he has dissed key Republican Congress members from Louisiana who thought they had a commitment from him for a congressionally-originated plan to rebuild New Orleans.

And many members of Congress still resent the fact that the executive branch was very selective in the intelligence it shared with Congress prior to the vote to authorize the president to invade Iraq.

What does all this mean for the final three years of the Bush presidency?

First, it means that the next eight months of this year will be rocky as he tries to sell a very controversial immigration proposal to a deeply divided Congress, and it means that he will have great difficulty getting Congress to agree to unpopular cuts in veteran’s health care and other key domestic programs.

Also, it means that the final two years of the Bush presidency will be very challenging for Bush if Democrats win control of either chamber and have subpoena power as they hold oversight hearings on the executive branch.

No one is suggesting that politics is not a contact sport. However, a little attention and courtesy go a long way in this business. As a Democrat, I was willing to give Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush the benefit of the doubt from time to time because they treated me as an equal. George W. Bush doesn’t do this even for members of his own party.

Some of you in this class may wind up working for a future president. Let’s hope you pay more attention in Congress 101 than President Bush did.

Martin Frost served in Congress from 1979 to 2005, representing a diverse district in the Dallas-Ft. Worth area. He served two terms as chairman of the House Democratic Caucus, the third-ranking leadership position for House Democrats, and two terms as chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. Frost serves as a regular contributor to FOX News Channel, and is a scholar in residence at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C. He holds a Bachelor of Journalism degree from the University of Missouri and a law degree from the Georgetown Law Center.

Respond to the Writer