Whither Obama and the Congress

Dr.Paul Freedenberg

Even though President Barack Obama will not admit it, it is clear that Congress went much further than the President wanted it to by inserting pet projects and other unnecessary spending into the stimulus bill.

But no matter what the specific event was, the apparent disagreement between the new president and the congressional leadership was to be expected. A president’s party in Congress, whether it be the majority, as it is now, or the minority, as it was during the last two years of the administration of President George W. Bush, never considers itself a direct extension, or tool, of the White House. That is the nature of a presidential system of government — in contrast to a parliamentary system, where there is party discipline enforced by the prime minister.

While it is true that the leadership of the president’s party feels an obligation to ultimately support the Administration — an obligation, incidentally, that almost got Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell defeated at the polls during the 2008 election — it is also true that the members of the president’s party in Congress see themselves as having different —usually more parochial —interests than those of the president.

That is why the President seemed so ready to compromise with the Republicans regarding many provisions of the economic stimulus bill that emerged from the House.

He demonstrated no pride of authorship or commitment to that bill.

While the actual formulation of the policy was kept deliberately secret, it is reasonable to assume that the White House did not propose—or necessarily support — most of the pet projects that were in the final stimulus bill that the Democrats produced. Moreover, as a new President, with few staff members in place, it was physically impossible for Obama to have much impact on the details of the $787 billion Stimulus bill. There were precious few of the President’s people available to review every part of the intricate appropriations and tax sections.

In the area of trade, for example, even though Obama attacked the North American Free Trade Act during the presidential campaign, he did not favor inserting the “buy America” provisions into the highway construction section of the bill. Indeed, he assured our allies that he would not sign a bill with such provisions.

But as the bill went through the initial legislative process at almost lightening speed, all the powerful Democratic chairmen and so-called “old bulls” saw an irresistible opportunity to make their constituencies and supporters happy.

The cry went out that the train was “leaving the station,” and they wanted to be aboard with their pet projects or tax provisions that had been stashed in their legislative closets for just such a propitious time. It was a particularly opportune time for such provisions, because it is likely to be one of the few times that the so-called “pay-go” rule will be suspended. That is the rule instituted by Speaker Pelosi in 2007 that all new taxes or spending proposals have to be paid for by cutting spending or raising taxes in another part, or companion bill.

The result of the process was not pretty. But, given self-imposed time pressures and the lack of executive branch and White House staffing, it is remarkable that President Obama got as many of his own priorities into the bill as he did.

Nevertheless, many non-essential, non-stimulative, indeed — to the non-Congressional observer — nonsensical provisions were added as well.

Demonstrating his understanding that politics is the art of the possible and his understanding that, perhaps, the age of “new politics” might have to wait for another day, President Obama declared the result a success.

Given the circumstances, he really could not have hoped for much better.

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