Obama and Congress

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After quoting a Montesquieu line about corrupt legislatures foreshadowing the end of liberty, Matt Yglesias says:

I do think you can see an inkling of what Montesquieu is talking about in the fact that there’s a persistent impulse in the contemporary United States to say that if something is really important, we need to basically cut congress out of the loop. This probably happened first with the steady decline of congress’ war powers. But you also saw it in the way that the Treasury/Fed response to the financial crisis was shaped by an overwhelming desire to avoid the need to go back to congress, by the way that proposals for improving the operations of MedPAC all involve trying to circumvent congress, etc. Tellingly, the judgment that congress can’t handle these issues is a judgment largely shared by congress.

Congress is a schizophrenic body: imperiously protective of its prerogatives some of the time, but, as Matt says, surprisingly eager to avoid responsibility and simply punt to the executive or the courts at other times.  So on the one hand you get blue-ribbon panels, base-closing commissions, the CBO, and statutory language left deliberately vague so that the hard details are left to agency rulemakers and appellate judges, while on the other hand you get temper tantrums about flying on Air Force One, seemingly endless jurisdictional fights, and committee barons rewriting entire legislative programs out of personal pique.  Barack Obama seems to understand this tension better than most, and so far has shown a quite subtle sense of when he can use executive power to lead Congress and when he needs to step back and let the Capitol Hill grandees do their thing.  Here’s Matt Bai on how Obama does it:

After winning the office with the same kind of outsider appeal as his predecessors, he has quietly but methodically assembled the most Congress-centric administration in modern history. Obama’s White House is run by Rahm Emanuel, a former House leader who was generally considered to be on a fast track to the speakership before he resigned to become chief of staff, and it is teeming with aides plucked from the senior ranks of both chambers. Obama seems to think that the dysfunction in Washington isn’t only about the heightened enmity between the parties; it’s also about the longstanding mistrust between the two branches of government that stare each other down from twin peaks on either end of Pennsylvania Avenue.

….During a recent conversation in his expansive West Wing office, Emanuel explained that he was well aware, as he and his fellow transition aides set out to fill the various roles in Obama’s White House last fall, that many of the aides they hired had pivotal friendships on the Hill that Obama could exploit. “That was a strategy,” Emanuel said. “We didn’t kind of parallel-park into it. We had a deep bench of people with a lot of relationships that run into both the House and Senate extensively. And so we wanted to use that to our maximum advantage.”

Read the rest to learn about Emanuel’s remarkably calculated “tracking system” for doling out little favors to members of Congress — something that’s probably a good idea, but also one that perhaps he should have kept to himself.  Ditto for the “spontaneous” drop-bys in the West Wing.  Successful executives should always cultivate at least a little bit of an aura of mystery, shouldn’t they?

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