Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Ezra's 7 (3/7): Presidents Don't Affect Legislation?

Intro to this series here; Ezra Klein's post is here.

Ezra says:
3) Nor does the executive's legislative strategy [matter very much], come to think of it. Politics is much more interesting when it's told as the story of the executive, but in fact, the rules and composition of the Congress decide 80 percent of everything -- including the president's legislative priorities and strategy.
Actually, this one I think needs rephrasing. I think Ezra is very much correct in pointing to the importance of Congress, and recognizing that a lot of press coverage is far too focused on the presidency (and I don't have a citation here, but some of the other policy bloggers are good on this too, including Matt Yglesias). However, that "80 percent" sets off my a detector that I learned not from political science graduate school, but from years of reading Bill James...80 percent? Really?

That can't be correct. After all, a similar House and fairly similar Senate in 2007-2008 didn't enact S-CHIP expansion or the Ledbetter law, didn't reform Pentagon procurement, and didn't change credit card regulation or public lands management, and passed a small and (very) tax-heavy stimulus, not a large stimulus balanced between tax cuts and spending. Those actions aren't, however, primarily about presidential strategy; they're about the fact of a Democratic president.

A better way to put this one, then, would be:

Nor does any legislative strategy determine outcomes, come to think of it. Politics is much more interesting when it's told as the story of individual decisions, but in fact, the rules and composition of the president and Congress are very important -- they even affect things we sometimes take to be individual decisions, such as the president's legislative priorities and strategy.

No question: if Grassley, Gregg, Burr and Lieberman were replaced by Senators who voted like Harkin, Shaheen, Hagan and Dodd, the Senate health care bill would be far closer to what liberals want; conversely, if Harkin Shaheen, Hagan and Dodd were replaced by Senators who voted like Grassley, Gregg, Burr, and Lieberman, the odds of passing anything would be dramatically lower, and anything that did pass would be much farther from what liberals want. Congressional rules really do matter, and cannot be wished away.

But keeping those fundamental factors in mind does not mean that legislative priorities and strategies don't matter. Obama could have chosen to place a higher priority on climate legislation than health care; I think that would have been a mistake given the composition and rules of Congress, but presidents made mistakes of that kind all the time. Obama's decision to co-opt relevant interest groups, as opposed to Clinton's decision not to do so, mattered as well, both to the prospects of the bill's passage and to the substance of the bills. It's not just presidential tactics that matter; had Max Baucus pushed a bill through Senate Finance quickly, he might have failed entirely, and very likely would have lost two votes in committee, at least one of which he's going to need on the Senate floor. Had Nancy Pelosi pushed for a floor vote before the August recess, Democratic Members of the House might have been hit harder by the August mess, and might have revolted in all sorts of messy ways. And there are many, many stories like that throughout American history: think of Jimmy Carter's failed legislative strategy (despite large Congressional majorities), or Newt Gingrich's disastrous train-wreck strategy in the 1995-1996 budget battle.

Once again: the basic point, that Congressional procedures and the party affiliation and ideological disposition of Members of Congress are very important, is an excellent point, and one that is far too often overlooked by reporters. On this one, however, I'd say that in general it's a problem of the wrong emphasis: legislative strategy is important, too. In fact, what we often need is better reporting so that we can figure out which is which, reporting that we often don't get because reporters are so fixated on White House legislative strategy.

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