Do Presidential Campaign Issues Shape Congress's Agenda?

Presidential campaigns are presumably about what a candidate proposes to accomplish if elected and how the candidate intends to govern. But any presidential policy agenda must make its way through Congress to become law. How much do the issues championed by the winning candidate affect congressional behavior? That was the question posed to a roundtable of congressional staff, journalists, and scholars at a November 22 Wilson Center program sponsored by the Congress Project.

Lee Rawls, chief-of-staff to Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) compared the policy arena to a busy restaurant kitchen. "Everybody's making a lot of noise, rattling the pots and pans, making their favorite dishes, but it is the master chef who sets the specials that top the menu. Likewise, it is the president who sets the policy agenda for Congress, even though others have their favorite dishes as well." Rawls said the president is likely to get much of what he wants if he moves early on a few priority items, but his political capital dwindles as the session wears on, especially in his second term.

Colleen Shogan, assistant professor of government and politics at George Mason University, concurred, saying most presidents get a lot less in their second term than in their first when measured against their campaign promises. In comparing the first and second presidential campaigns of presidents Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton, Shogan found a 60 percent reduction in delivering on campaign proposals in their second terms compared to their first. This may be because members of Congress know they will not be running again and their electoral fates are not as tied to his political and legislative success.

But Rawls said that in some ways President George W. Bush is in a better position now than he was in his first term because he had a popular majority vote this time and more members of his own party in both houses of Congress. Rawls qualified that though, by saying that any vacancies that occur on the Supreme Court could "tie the Senate in knots" for some time and sidetrack some of his domestic priorities. None of the discussants would predict the outcomes of two of the most prominent Bush issues, tax reform and Social Security reform, but noted that both are fraught with controversy and potential roadblocks. Nevertheless, the outcomes on those issues will in large part determine whether Bush's second term is judged a success or failure.

Burns Strider, a senior policy adviser to House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) did not see the election results as any kind of mandate for bold new departures. Instead, he expected to see "more of the same" conservative agenda being pursued as in Bush's first term. "Despite 9/11 and two wars, this election was not a coalescing event" for new departures, Strider observed. The actions taken by Congress in the immediate aftermath of the election such as inserting an abortion provision in the omnibus spending bill at the last minute is evidence that the conservatives will keep bringing up the same issues. Moreover, Strider observed, the defiance of House Republicans in blocking intelligence reform called for by President Bush and Speaker Hastert is an indication that the conservatives are more likely to push back against their own party leaders if they seem to be moderating or compromising in their views on such matters as immigration and support for the Pentagon.

Washington Post congressional correspondent Charles Babington attempted to analyze what he saw as a disconnect between members of Congress, who tend to be either very liberal or very conservative, and the general electorate which tends to be more moderate. One explanation, he suggested, was the results of redistricting which produced very safe Republican and Democratic seats. Babington noted that when you discount the changes in the Texas delegation, where Republicans defeated four incumbent Democrats, only three of the remaining members of Congress running were defeated on November 2. "When members know they are unlikely to be beaten by a candidate of the other party, and are only vulnerable to defeat in a primary by someone on their extreme flank, they will tend to vote the more extreme position in Congress to guard against such challenges." Babington cited the instance of a recent House Republican party rule change that could permit a committee chairman or party leader to remain in power if indicted. "Most Republicans I've talked to think it was a very dumb thing to do from a PR standpoint," Babington said. "So why did they do it? They figure they can't lose, so they're not worried this will defeat them."

Shogan said the president is not in the same position as members of his party in Congress. "The President had to run more from the center during his campaign, and will have to govern more from the middle because that's where the people are, and he needs their continuing support." Roundtable members seemed to agree that unified party government may sound like a formula for policy success, but not everyone is on the same page, and Congress has a way of asserting its institutional prerogatives and individual preferences. Nevertheless, as Strider concluded, "The American people now know that the entire government is under the Republicans in Washington, D.C., and will hold them accountable for what is and isn't done."