Congress and the President

You are missing some Flash content that should appear here! Perhaps your browser cannot display it, or maybe it did not initialize correctly.

Thursday, February 7, 2002
Once a year, it's hard for Americans, ordinarily absorbed in their day-to-day activities, to avoid the news from Washington, as every television and radio network and every major newspaper covers the President's annual State of the Union address to a joint session of Congress. 

On that night, all eyes are trained on the President as he outlines his priorities for the coming year. Members of the House and Senate from both parties applaud respectfully, sometimes enthusiastically. In this annual ritual of American democracy, the President tries to point the direction for the country, but in most speeches he also comes across as the nation's chief legislator, giving the Congress its to-do list for the year. 

It is important to remember, however, that the Constitution does not envision a master-and-servant relationship between the President and Congress. The framers of the document took care to create a system of government in which there is a balance of powers and extensive checks and balances between them. In fact, the framers actually gave more specific powers to Congress, for they were wary that a too-powerful President would repeat the wrongs that the King of England had inflicted on the colonies. 

The President is entitled to recommend legislation, but his success at seeing his agenda enacted depends to a considerable degree on his skill at reaching out to members of Congress and persuading them to follow his lead. The President often sees Congress as an obstacle to be overcome, and always has to calculate how his proposals will play out with Congress. He cannot dictate to Congress what he wants, and faces a huge task in communicating with Congress because of its size and diversity. One instrument of persuasion is the presidential veto, and sometimes with an overtly combative stance, a President can bend Congress to his will. But typically, fostering a sense of cooperation and partnership with Congress building coalitions of support — is the path to presidential success. 

These days, we are accustomed to the notion of a President who is active across a broad front of legislative issues. But until the 20th Century, this was not the usual model of presidential behavior. Before then, more often than not, Congress was the driving force in American government. 

In the 19th Century, prominent congressmen such as Kentucky's Henry Clay were titans on the Washington stage for decades, while Presidents came and went. For instance, when Indiana's William Henry Harrison was elected President in 1840, it was widely understood that he would look to Senator Clay for decisions on most important matters. 

But in the first half of the 20th Century, Presidents such as Theodore Roosevelt and Franklin D. Roosevelt created the model of the expansive, activist modern presidency. To members of Congress, the President now looms large in the legislative process. He sets the national agenda, and has behind him the vast knowledge and expertise of the federal bureaucracy. In this media-driven age, he speaks with one voice, as against the many of Congress, making it easier for him to command the attention of the cameras. Using the bully pulpit, the President can go over the heads of Congress and make his case directly to the American people. 

The relationship between Congress and the President lies at the very core of our system of government, and, under our Constitution, tension and struggle between these rivals for power is inevitable. A democracy without conflict is not a democracy. The framers did not set out to promote gridlock between President and Congress, but they did intend that conflicting opinions in society should be considered carefully before government takes action. 

It is a dynamic relationship, changing with every issue, every event. Sometimes it is cordial and cooperative. Sometimes it is hostile and polarized. And sometimes it is both things on the same day, shifting with the issue under consideration. 

Ours is clearly not a system set up for quick, efficient action, and sorting out who has the real power between the President and Congress in a host of matters is not easy. But more often than not, Congresses and Presidents find a way to work with each other, cooperating where possible, and the nation's business gets done. The relationship between President and Congress, while at times tumultuous, in the end safeguards the people from corruption of power and abuse of authority - by either side. It is a system that works - not perfectly, to be sure, but certainly adequately. 

(Lee Hamilton is Director of the Center on Congress at Indiana University. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years.)