No Congressional Honeymoon

us-congressPresident Clinton – President Bill Clinton – began his term when the Democrats had controlled the House for forty years and the Senate for most of that time too. They lost control two years later. When George W Bush took office Republicans had a secure majority in the House and a narrow one in the Senate. They held control for most of the next six years. Barack Obama took office with Democrats having secure majorities in both chambers, holding the House for two years and the Senate for six. So the last three presidents all took office with considerable support and goodwill from Congress for at least their first two years.

The forty fifth president will not be so fortunate.

You may be wondering how Common Sense can be so confident on this. You have the advantage over your columnist. As you read this, the results of the elections will be known, or largely known, but this column was written some days before the election. Your advantages notwithstanding, the prediction is solid.

Early Democratic hopes of a Clinton landslide with long coattails, delivering control of the House, have largely receded. The Democrats could certainly take the Senate, but the House is looking like a major stretch. For Trump the situation looks slightly better in theory, but would be considerably worse in practice. The GOP could, on paper, have control of all three elected branches, but Trump is not a Republican. He does not share the Party’s values, vision, or policies, and has had close to zero support from Congressional Republicans from the outset.

The protectionist agenda to which Trump is committed and Clinton is, on paper, also signed up, has little support in Congress. Speaker Ryan will oppose protectionism as will the Senate Majority Leader – whether that is Mitch McConnell or Chuck Schumer.

Democrats have attacked Congress over the past few years for frustrating the President’s agenda and for “not doing its job”. That goes two ways, of course. The president has been working to frustrate Congress’s agenda too. That’s how the division of power works. That is the elected branches doing their jobs.

Since the earliest days of the Republic there has been tension between those who seek an activist executive branch – the Hamiltonians – and those who think the domestic agenda, at least, should be led from Congress – the Jeffersonians. That tension is certainly going to continue. In recent decades people have tended to see presidents in heroic Hollywood terms. People expect the president to have solutions to problems – from healthcare, to crime, welfare and education – which Congress either accepts or rejects.

This view may have reached its zenith in 2004 and 2008, when 20-year veterans of the Senate sought the presidency promising healthcare plans, which they could have proposed in the Senate at any time, and could still have pushed even after losing the presidency.

Perhaps it is time to review these assumptions. Perhaps the presidency should become a more technocratic role with the domestic agenda arising principally from Congress. It is time for a more Jeffersonian settlement.


Quentin Langley lives in New York and London and teaches at the University of Bedfordshire Business School. He is the author of Brandjack: How your reputation is at risk from brand pirates and what to do about it


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