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Michael Barone: Obama Lets Congress — and Lobbyists — Do the Work

While president talks hope and change, lawmakers continue business as usual

The balance between the executive and legislative branches in writing laws has changed over the centuries. In the 19th century, Sen. Stephen Douglas wrote the Kansas-Nebraska Act, with President Franklin Pierce just an interested bystander. In the 20th century, President Lyndon Johnson reportedly insisted that Congress change not one word of the Great Society legislation he sent down from the White House.

Michael Barone
Michael Barone

The first presidents of the 21st century have taken approaches between those two extremes. Under President George W. Bush, the White House pretty much drafted the 2001 and 2003 tax cuts and negotiated the numbers with members who cast the critical votes. On the No Child Left Behind Act and the 2003 Medicare-prescription drug bill, the White House presented its plans and then negotiated with committee leaders — a bipartisan group on education, mostly Republicans on Medicare.

President Obama spelled out his positions on the issues during the campaign, but is letting members of Congress do almost all the heavy lifting now that he’s in office.

Thus the $787 billion stimulus package was largely written by members of the appropriations committees, with concessions made to the three Republicans whose votes were needed in the Senate. Health care bills are now being fleshed out by Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, and Sen. Charles E. Grassley, R-Iowa, the committee’s ranking Republican, and by Democratic committee chairmen in the House of Representatives. The administration has proposed cap-and-trade legislation to limit carbon dioxide emissions, but the sole working draft made public has come from two House committee chairmen, Reps. Henry A. Waxman, D-Calif., and Edward J. Markey, D-Mass.

For those who remember Obama’s promise to be a transformative leader, it comes as a surprise to see such deference to Congress. Obama insiders explain that when then-first lady Hillary Clinton tried to draft a health care bill without input from Congress, the project crashed and burned.

One might add that Obama never acquired much legislative expertise in his three years and 10 months as a senator, most of which he spent campaigning for president. Better, perhaps, to leave it to Congress, where Democratic senators have considerable experience legislating and the relevant House committees are led by experienced and unusually competent chairmen.

But there are problems with Obama’s approach, as there were with Douglas’ and Johnson’s, and for that matter with Bush’s.

The first problem is that the congressional sausage factory can produce laws with embarrassing amounts of gristle and waste matter. Appropriators wrote their wish lists into the stimulus bill, and while the results might look attractive to their constituents, they were held up to ridicule by Republicans and bipartisan critics of pork-barrel spending. The stimulus package hasn’t gotten any more popular as the details have come out.

Second, there is a danger of being whipsawed between competing extremes. In a story on the front page of Tuesday’s Washington Post, advocates of a government health insurance plan threatened to withhold 70 votes if the House Democratic leadership propitiated moderate Democrats who have qualms about destroying private insurance. Douglas cobbled together the Kansas-Nebraska Act with some provisions supported by one half of the Senate and others backed by the other half, with the only overlapping vote being Douglas’ own. It’s not clear that today’s party leaders have the skill to achieve this impressive political feat.

Finally, there is the problem that Congress can simply ignore Obama’s priorities, as the Republican Congress ignored Bush on Social Security in 2005. That could be the fate of cap-and-trade legislation. Nearly half the Senate Democrats voted against including this in the budget resolution, which would have made it easier to pass — a clear sign that members from states and districts that depend on coal-fired electric plants don’t want to impose high utility rates, not just on those evil folks who make more than $250,000 but also on the considerably larger number of their constituents who use electricity.

In the meantime, we are presented with a scene that would have delighted Mark Twain. A president who campaigned for office promising to banish lobbyists from his midst has left it in the hands of Congress to work out all the details of complex legislation that would have enormous effects on economic activities of all sorts. The entirely predictable result is a profusion of lobbyists such as Washington has never seen. Quite an accomplishment for the candidate who promised hope and change.

Michael Barone is a senior writer for U.S.News & World Report and principal coauthor of The Almanac of American Politics. Click here to contact him.

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