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By Jay Cost

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Bush, Congress, and Political Power

Government, as we all know, is about power, which is a multi-faceted and sometimes subtle concept. I have found that many people have a working defintion of power that is not entirely sufficient to yield a full understanding of American politics. Bringing a broader definition of power to bear on recent events in Washington can help us tease out some insights about our current political environment that, I think, have gone largely unnoticed.

A good way to think about power is to imagine two politicians, Bob and Barbara, at a negotiating table. If Bob tells Barbara that she had better agree to the proposal, or else he will refuse to endorse her in the next election - Bob is exercising power over Barbara. Bob has something she wants, and for Barbara to get that, she must give him something he wants.

This is the way most people think about power. But there are other modes in which one can exercise power. For instance, what if Bob decides, before the meeting begins, that he is simply not going to bring up certain disagreements he has with Barbara, and that he is going to bring up other disagreements instead. In this case Bob would have the power to set the agenda. This is a power that is different than the power outlined in the last paragraph, where Bob flat out threatened Barbara. This is a more subtle exercise of power. If flat out threats might be understood as the "first mode" of power, the power to set the agenda might be understood as the "second mode."

Many people do not think of power being exercised in this way, though I am sure the same people - when the subject of setting the agenda is brought up - would recognize that agenda-setting is indeed a powerful activity. It is just it is not on their radars.

It's on my radar, though. As a matter of fact, the second mode of power tends to creep into my thoughts whenever I think about Bush and Congress. For instance, I looked at this immigration debate, and I asked: why was this issue brought up now? I find the answer that many might give - "Well - it is an important, pressing concern." - to be insufficient. After all, there are literally dozens of "important, pressing" concerns, all of which are just as worthy of the public's attention as others. Why this issue?

The answer is...politics! Who chooses to raise some issues and not others? Politicians! Of course, in some instances - for example, 9/11 - issues are raised for politicians, and not by them. But, in most cases, politicians choose to bring certain issues up and not to bring certain other issues up. Politicians set the agenda. Democrats and Republicans alike will know what I am talking about. In 1993, Republicans objected mightily to the "manufactured" crisis in health care that the Clintons had supposedly created. Just last fall, Democrats objected mightily to the "crass politicization" of the issue of Guantanamo that the Republicans undertook after Labor Day. Both sides were coming from the same direction at different points in time - both recognized that the other had acted to set the agenda in a way that was beneficial to the other's interests, and that they could do nothing about it but complain.

Why is the power to set the agenda so important? The parties disagree on most every issue that we discuss in politics. On some issues, the Republicans have the voters with them. On other issues, the Democrats do. The power to set the agenda gives a party the power to allow discussion only on issues that favor their side. Republicans like to talk about taxes and terrorism. Why? They know that, by and large, the public supports Republican ideas on these issues. Democrats, meanwhile, like to talk about education and health care. Why? They know that, by and large, the public supports Democratic ideas on these issues.

This is one reason why political campaigns are not so much discussions between two candidates who disagree, but rather talking-past-one-another sessions. Republicans know better than to engage Democrats on health care because the more health care is discussed, the more the party loses the support of the electorate. So, what do Republicans do? They talk about taxes. Democrats know better than to engage Republicans on taxes for the same reason. So what do they do? They talk about health care.

Ideally speaking, if you have the power to set the agenda, what kind of issue should you raise? The answer is pretty clear. The best kind of issue is one where your allies are united and your opponents are divided, and the public likes your idea and hates your opponents' idea. That makes for the best politics. You can make yourself look like the action-oriented, unified party of the people, and you can make your opponents look like the feckless, divided defenders of the special interests. It is the gift that keeps on giving: you get the policy initiative you want, and you help yourself in advance of the next election.

As evidence of the truth of what I write here, I would point to two news items that crossed through my field of vision in the last few weeks. The first is from Paul Kane and his Capitol Blog on the Washington Post's website on June 1. Kane writes:

House Democrats are voting with such unity that, if continued throughout the 110th Congress, their cohesion would be unparalleled in recent congressional history.

Through the first five months of the year, the average House Democrat has voted with a majority of his/her caucus colleagues on 94 percent of the 425 roll calls. Enjoying their honeymoon period, 110 Democrats -- nearly half of the 232 Democrats -- have sided with a majority of the caucus on at least 98 percent of the votes cast this year.

Now, consider this from the Washington Post from the same day:

On legislation, Republicans have at times shown remarkable disunity.

Last week, Boehner denounced a Democratic bill against energy price gouging as pointless political pandering, only to see it receive 56 Republican votes, including McCotter's. For months, Republican leaders had denounced Democrats for loading an Iraq war spending bill with nonmilitary spending that they called wasteful pork. Then last week, when Democrats separated that spending into another measure, 123 Republicans voted for it -- including House Minority Whip Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), who had been expected to hold his party off the bill.

Why are these levels of unity and disunity so historic? My guess is that the biggest reason is that the Democrats have been out of legislative power in the House for 12 years. As the GOP controlled the agenda-setting power, the Democrats collected a series of popular, Democrat-unifying, Republican-dividing issues over this period of time - issues that the Republican agenda-setters avoided because they were bad for the GOP. Now that the Democrats have the agenda-setting power, they can finally hold votes on these proposals. A good parallel might be made to George Harrison, whose first post-Beatles effort, All Things Must Pass, is arguably the best of any post-Beatles effort by any of them, even Ringo. George had been smothered by the group dynamic, being limited to only two songs per record. By the time the group split, George had a backlog of songs that was so great that he could fill two full records with some of the best music of the time. So it goes now with the Democrats. They have a backlog of issues that resonate with the public, unify their side, and divide the other side. With the majority in both chambers, they can now set the agenda. And they are using that power to their maximum advantage.

What about immigration reform? This is really an inefficient issue for both sides in Congress. The reason is that it divides everybody (Republicans more than Democrats), and nothing that is comprehensive seems to resonate with the public, which makes it unlikely to pass (and thus more damaging to Democrats than Republicans). If your business is politics, this kind of issue is just bad for business. Nothing gets accomplished, and pundits like Bob Franken and Dan Balz write you off as useless. Who needs that?

So, who brought immigration reform to the table? President Bush, of course. He retains some power in the second mode, even though his party's caucus really does not. It was by his encouragement that the 109th and 110th Congresses undertook this subject. He placed on the agenda an issue that relatively few desired to have placed on the agenda. This is a sign that, at least as of last week, he was not yet a lame duck. He still had some power left to wield. This was power in the second mode.

From the recent Iraq debate, we can also see that Bush still has some power in the first mode left to wield: he was able to induce the Democrats to do what they did not really want to do. Of course, his power in this mode is very limited. The reason Bush was able to wield power on the Iraq issue is because he is protecting the status quo, and our system has a strong status quo bias. We should not expect him to be able to wield such power when he seeks to change the status quo (more on this presently). So, while Bush has some power in the first mode left, it is on the wane.

So also is his power in the second mode. For the only issue that he could place on the table is one that divided his own party. It was also an issue on which there was never anything but a slim chance of legislative success. This is not the sort of issue he ideally wants to place on the table, but he had no other choice. Democrats wouldn't hear any talk of extending his tax cuts, of reforming social security, of reforming the tax code, of generally creating an ownership society. Nuts to all of that, as far as they are concerned. And rightly so, from a political perspective. Why should they allow the President to place issues on the table that might divide them and resonate with the public? The only issues on which they will indulge the President are issues that divide his own party. This is a sign that his power in the second mode, his agenda-setting power, has been on the wane for quite some time.

The failure for Bush on the immigration issue is, I think, fairly telling. He failed not because he lacked power in the second mode. He was indeed able to induce Congress to take up an issue that he wanted it to take up. His failure was really due to an inability to induce legislators to alter current policy as he wants it altered. He no longer can put the "squeeze" on legislators and directly induce them to do what they would not otherwise do, at least when it comes to changing the status quo. Indeed, this was so much the case that - so far as I know - the White House played no significant role in the kind of politicking that Senators Kennedy and Lott did. They did not even make a serious effort to arm twist. His failure on immigration indicates that whatever first mode power he has left, it is really limited to protecting the current course of government.

What's more, I would wager that this was Bush's last exercise of power in the second mode. I cannot think of another issue that he might be able to place upon the table for consideration. He and Democrats disagree too vehemently on essentially every other issue of any importance, and his standing with the public is so low that Democrats will be better off by rejecting his suggestions for the legislative agenda than accepting them.

So - where does that leave the President? Thanks to the Constitution, he still possesses some measure of power in the first mode. Indeed, I think that all the power that is left for Bush to wield is the set of formal authorities granted to him by our founding document. These powers enable him to do little more than stop Congress from altering the status quo. No longer can he use his prestige and authority to place issues on the table for consideration. No longer, further, can he induce legislators to alter the status quo as he prefers to see it altered. I think those days are finished. I think that the failure of immigration reform marks the final stop in Bush's long descent into - to borrow a phrase from presidential scholar Richard Neustadt - a "constitutional clerk." Barring some sort of phenomenal occurrence, I think that Bush is now a president who can do little more than wield the formal powers granted him by Article II to protect the choices he made when he wielded what - I think we can all admit - was a uniquely vast amount of political power. This will make him more than a lame duck, but not by much.

-Jay Cost