A Changing Congress?

Washington Matters

A Changing Congress?

The Wall Street Journal has an intriguing story today about the close relationship between President Obama's White House and the Democratic-led Congress that marked the evolution of the stimulus package signed into law today. It points out how much more collaborative the relationship is than it was during either the Clinton or Bush administrations.

But the Journal also places the impetus for change entirely on the shoulders of Obama and his Congress-savvy staff -- and that overlooks some important ways that things are changing on Capitol Hill.

The Journal tries to make the case that Bush and Clinton had a rough time with Congress because they were governors not wise to the ways of legislating in the big leagues. While certainly true with Clinton, who had a tenuous relationship with congressional Democrats from the start and then had to deal with a Republican-controlled Congress for six of his eight years, the assessment misses the target during most of Bush's time in office.

Except for the last three years of Bush's term, congressional Republicans -- especially those in the House -- were so compliant with White House wishes that reporters used to jokingly refer to the House as the Politburo because it so routinely bent to Bush's will. There was a reason for that. Under House Speaker Dennis Hastert and House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, party discipline was prized above all else. They ran a top-down organization that gave little leeway to chairmen of House committees and subcommittees. Several members lost key jobs for stepping out of line -- and many more stayed in line for fear of having the same thing happen to them.

The Journal story makes a good point of how experienced people in the Obama administration -- starting with Vice President Joe Biden, a senator for more than 30 years, and White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel, a former House leader -- helped ease the way for the stimulus legislation. And they did so without trying to dictate terms or arm twist balky Democrats. But when DeLay and Hastert were in charge, they kept much tighter control of key negotiations with the White House.

The Senate was a different story then for the same reasons it is now -- Senate rules make broad consensus on most legislation a necessity. But the Bush White House and the House leadership even tried to change those odds. First, they often put the Senate in the position of either going along or letting legislation die -- and much of it did die. Second, when Senate Republican leader Trent Lott ran into trouble and had to step aside, the White House pushed hard to replace him with a relatively junior senator, Bill Frist of Tennessee, because he was regarded as a rising star and team player. Frist remained a team player but was such an ineffective leader that his career crashed and burned.

So far, it doesn't look like House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid intend to be so dictatorial.

For one thing, their members are far less cohesive ideologically than the largely conservative Republicans were. Without some give and take, legislation could easily collapse. For another, with a new president from their party taking office in the middle of a crisis, they will be extremely careful about doing anything that could undermine him or fracture Democratic unity.

So far, the strategy appears to be paying off -- and not just with passage of the stimulus package. The approval rating of Congress soared 12 points between January and February, according to a recent Gallup poll. It's only 31%, but that beats the snake-belly-low level of approval in the teens that Congress has generally been bestowed up on Congress in recent years. Gallup says the 31% figure is more in line with a 35% average approval rating -- and that's against an average presidential approval rating of 55%.