« The 109th Congress...So Far | Main | Happy New Presidential Race »

Bush and Congress: What Went Wrong?

Why did President Bush not do very well in Congress this year? Was it because he was politically inept? Was it because he offended members of his own party? Was it because they were afraid that sticking with him would kill any chance of reelection?

All of these are possibly correct. But I think that there is a more efficient answer -- and that is that the President, in dealing with Congress, simply bit off more than he could chew. He thought that there were consensus positions for reforming certain issues, but there were none. He misread the number of people willing to agree to any kind of tax cut extension, Social Security reform, immigration reform, or Patriot Act extension.

His fundamental mistake, I think, was that he failed to appreciate the nature of Congress. Congress is not the sort of body that passes lots of big pieces of reform legislation by small margins. Its structure is such that you usually have to find a very large consensus within the institution itself -- and this is very often hard to come by. At certain points in time and with certain types of issues, it is downright impossible.

This is the point that Stanford's Keith Krehbiel makes in his book Pivotal Politics. This is one of the few books I have read that tries to explain congressional activity in the broader context of the presidency. Krehbiel argues that the structure of Congress is very important. It creates roadblocks to getting what you want out of the institution. Think of all the different structural "pivots" in Congress:

1. Any bill must find a majority in both houses.

2. Any bill must, if it is opposed by the President, find a majority of 2/3rds.

3. Any bill must find a majority of 3/5ths in the Senate.


These structures explain, according to Krehbiel, why gridlock is the status quo in Congress and why, when it is broken, it is usually broken by large majorities. Think of it this way. Suppose you have a status quo policy that a bare majority of Congress wants to change to an alternative policy. Is this enough? No way. There are still two more "pivots". If a 2/5th minority of the Senate prefers the status quo to the majority's proposal, it will filibuster. If the President prefers the status quo to the majority's proposal, he will veto; his veto will be successful unless 2/3rds of Congress prefers the alternative to the status quo.

But, one might respond, what about political parties? Is it not easier to get big changes when the President and Congress are of the same party? According to this theory, not necessarily. This theory presumes that members of Congress and the President vote according to their own interests. If they prefer one position over another, they vote for their most preferred position. The party does not have the power to induce them to vote against their interests. From what we know about congressional parties, this is a very reasonable assumption. They are weak compared to European parties. Our legislative parties usually work by controlling what goes on the agenda, not by controlling members of Congress. Party leaders know that they can really do nothing to stop "mavericks".

As a practical matter, then, we will only see Congress and the President act to reform a situation when a very large majority prefers the policy proposal to the status quo.

This also explains why Bush had trouble this year. He tried to reform certain policies where there does not seem to be a large enough consensus on any given reform proposal. In other words, it was not just a matter of Bush refusing to give the other side what they want. It was a matter of impossibility: it was impossible to find any alternative to the status quo -- on Social Security, taxes, immigration, etc -- that Bush, any majority of the House, and any 3/5ths of the Senate would find acceptable. For instance, what would have happened if Bush had compromised with his Democratic opponents so much on immigration that they would have agreed with his proposal? His Republican supporters would have turned into his opponents!

Ultimately, it is impossible to reform certain issues at certain times in American history. Sometimes the size of the majority willing to go along with any given reform is too small.

So, maybe Bush's legislative mistake this year was not that he is stubborn and refuses to modify his positions. Maybe it was not that he did not sweet talk Congress enough. Maybe the mistake came last January when his White House decided what they were going to push for. They chose too many wrong things -- things that Congress could not possibly have agreed upon. In other words, Bush failed in Congress for the same reason he failed with the public -- he presumed that his election meant something more than it did. He misread his mandate. His election did not mean, for the public, that certain issues were settled. It did not mean, for the Congress, that a consensus position of sufficient size had emerged within the body. It only meant that he could keep his job for another four years.

« The 109th Congress...So Far | Main | Happy New Presidential Race »


TrackBack URL for this entry:

Listed below are links to weblogs that reference Bush and Congress: What Went Wrong?:

» Saturday Links from Conservative Outpost
From around the 'sphere today: Outside the Beltway looks at a possible Presidential bid by Mitt Romney...and doesn't see a groundswell for the Mass. Governor. The Political Pit Bull notes that CBS is getting into the biz of predicting the... [Read More]

» Monday Links from Maggie's Farm
Why legal pro bono work is inefficient: Cafe HayekThe Ferret looks handy, and other Brit military hardware that you can buy. Khaki CorpsAnd on a related topic, a website featuring the ruins of the Third Reich.Coming out of the closet as a neocon - tough t [Read More]

» Politique: la force d'inertie from Un swissroll
Pour qui veut changer les choses mais ne s'intéresse que de loin à la vie publique, l'abattement risque de succéder rapidement à l'enthousiasme impatient: le poids de l'inertie paraît toujours s'opposer à ce qui semble pourtant "évident",... [Read More]

» Madison and the NFL from Three Sources
Not sure where he would have come down on the DH or the infield fly rule, but I posit that President Madison would have appreciated the structure of the NFL playoff system. If nothing else, it proves the importance of... [Read More]

» Congress Critique from amcgltd
While this article on "what went wrong?" last year is about Bush vs. the Congress, it really could be about any president since Watergate. The gridlock we've all come to know and loathe is of course far from new,... [Read More]