As the U.S. presidential election campaign unfolds, with the economy, the deficit/debt, and now gay marriage as the dominant issues (for the moment), it is worth remembering that the president must ultimately deal with the Congress.
The Congress, after the presidential election, is likely to be as difficult, even deadlocked, as it usually is, making sustained progress on the country’s most serious problems as intractable as it has been for most of President Barack Obama’s first term in office.
Making things difficult was, of course, the vision of the Founding Fathers of the U.S. republic. As Robert Caro reminds us again in the fourth volume of his engrossing and rococo biography of Lyndon B. Johnson, the Senate, in particular, is a body designed to frustrate action.
As Senate majority leader and then as president, Mr. Johnson was able episodically to make the Senate work, in the sense of getting legislation passed. But for much longer periods, the Senate, with Southern Democrats allied with Republicans, killed progressive legislation, strangling it with the institution’s arcane rules of procedure and priority.
Old rules have been altered. But new ones have emerged, including one created by precedent whereby 60 votes out of 100 are needed to pass legislation, which leads to the smaller party in the chamber being able to frustrate the wishes of the majority, assuming the majority has fewer than 60 votes.
There were times, though not many, when senators worked with those of another party, as Mr. Caro demonstrates happened under Mr. Johnson’s stewardship. Not only is a Lyndon Johnson-type figure not around, the parties are more polarized than they have been for a very long time, and perhaps have ever been.
One by one, Republican incumbents have been threatened or defeated not by Democrats, but by Republican challengers more fiercely conservative than they are. The latest casualty was Senator Richard Lugar of Indiana, a six-term senator who at age 80 might have been defeated because of his age but who lost by virtue of his insufficiently ideological record.
Mr. Lugar’s greatest political sin, apparently, was to have worked with and – heaven forbid! – compromised with Senate Democrats now and again. Richard Mourdock, who with the support of Tea Party insurgents defeated Mr. Lugar for the Republican nomination, pledged that under no circumstances would he ever compromise. Confrontation – all-out ideological confrontation – was his promise.
The Republican majority in the House proposes measures that would essentially gut the welfare state. They insist that the gigantic U.S. deficit can best be solved by spending cuts to domestic programs, with only the slightest slice for the Pentagon and, of course, no tax increases of any kind, anywhere, anyhow. This is the position of the Senate Republicans and of the party’s presidential nominee, Mitt Romney.
If Mr. Romney were to become president, those who do not understand the U.S. system might assume the Republican ducks to be all in a row: the White House, a majority in the House and perhaps a Senate majority or something close to it. But the Senate, the dish into which it was once said the popular passions should be poured to be cooled, would stand ready also to assume its primordial role: to delay and frustrate.
If Mr. Obama were to be re-elected, he would face at least one, if not two houses controlled by the new breed of Republicans, fierce and ideological, believing themselves sent to Washington to carry on through confrontation the ideological battle against spending, secularism and science.
The executive branch’s struggle against Congress (and the Supreme Court) is woven into U.S. history. One branch’s capacity to frustrate the other has ebbed and flowed (after the disaster of the Vietnam War, fears grew about the “imperial presidency”), but what is often overlooked is the capacity of the Congress to frustrate itself.
To the classic separation of powers – executive, legislative and judicial – must be added divisions within the legislature that have only sometimes been overcome by compromise and bargaining and horse-trading and log-rolling and all the other features of the U.S. Congress at work.
Except that today, the Congress does not work and is unlikely to work whoever wins the presidency, a dangerous state of affairs for a country with so many domestic challenges.