The balance between the executive and legislative branches in writing laws has changed over the centuries. In the 19th century, Sen. Stephen Douglas wrote the Kansas-Nebraska Act, with President Franklin Pierce just an interested bystander. In the 20th century, President Lyndon Johnson reportedly insisted that Congress change not one word of the Great Society legislation he sent down from the White House.
By Michael Barone
The first presidents of the 21st century have taken approaches between those two extremes. Under George W. Bush, the White House pretty much drafted the 2001 and 2003 tax cuts and negotiated the numbers with members who cast the critical votes. On the No Child Left Behind Act and the 2003 Medicare-prescription drug bill, the White House presented its plans and then negotiated with committee leaders — a bipartisan group on education, mostly Republicans on Medicare.
Barack Obama spelled out his positions on the issues during the campaign, but is letting members of Congress do almost all the heavy lifting now that he’s in office.
Thus the $787 billion stimulus package was largely written by members of the Appropriations committees, with concessions made to the three Republicans whose votes were needed in the Senate. Health care bills are now being fleshed out by Chairman Max Baucus and ranking Republican Charles E. Grassley in the Senate Finance Committee, and by Democratic committee chairmen in the House. The administration has proposed cap-and-trade legislation to limit carbon dioxide emissions, but the sole working draft made public has come from House committee chairmen Henry A. Waxman and Edward J. Markey.
For those who remember Obama’s promise to be a transformative leader, it comes as a surprise to see such deference to Congress. Obama insiders explain that when Hillary Clinton tried to draft a health care bill without input from Congress, the project crashed and burned.
One might add that Obama never acquired much legislative expertise in his three years and 10 months as a senator, most of which he spent campaigning for president. Better, perhaps, to leave it to Congress, where Democratic senators have considerable experience legislating and the relevant House committees are led by experienced and unusually competent chairmen.
But there are problems with Obama’s approach, as there were with Stephen Douglas’ and Lyndon Johnson’s, and for that matter with George W. Bush’s.
The first problem is that the congressional sausage factory can produce laws with embarrassing amounts of gristle and waste matter. Appropriators wrote their wish lists into the stimulus bill, and while the results might look attractive to their constituents, they were held up to ridicule by Republicans and bipartisan critics of pork-barrel spending. The stimulus package hasn’t gotten any more popular as the details have come out.
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