Congress Just Waves as They Go By

“Congress doesn’t pass legislation anymore. They just wave at the bills as they go by.” ~Will Rogers, 1933

“In the history of the modern presidency, Wilson, Roosevelt and Johnson stand out for their legislative achievements, the result of a shrewd strategy and cagey timing. They offer President Barack Obama several different models as he attempts to push through Congress an ambitious domestic agenda of which health care is only one part.

Wilson was able to secure passage of much of his “New Freedom,” a program that included tariff reform, the creation of the Federal Trade Commission and the Federal Reserve, stronger antitrust measures and the enactment of the progressive income tax. He did it through the kind of skillful manipulation of the Democratic caucus that came naturally to a former college professor who had spent his academic career writing about the need for stronger parties in America.

Wilson coordinated with congressional leaders — “King Caucus,” as Republican critics called them — by using carrots and sticks to make sure Democrats voted the party line and limit Republican participation. Democratic leaders, for instance, used “binding” votes, whereby two-thirds of the party caucus could commit all its members to a vote a particular way on a bill. Legislators who did not abide by a binding vote would lose their party privileges such as treasured committee assignments. Republicans were left out of much of the legislative process, including many conference committee deliberations. “Never did the lash of the presidential and caucus whip cut so deep as today,” one Republican complained.

Roosevelt displayed even greater legislative acumen. While Wilson’s main tactic was to rely on disciplined partisanship, Roosevelt overwhelmed legislators with more proposals than the institution had seen in decades. Will Rogers joked that “Congress doesn’t pass legislation anymore. They just wave at the bills as they go by.” [Emphasis mine] But in truth, Roosevelt often plucked proposals out of Congress and lent them the presidential stamp of authority. The political scientist David Mayhew astutely noted that the 1932 election provided Sen. Robert Wagner of New York a president who would finally sign his bills.

By keeping Congress in constant motion, Roosevelt helped create a legislative environment oriented toward action. He also had no problem allowing others to claim credit for legislation or to cut the deals that they needed to assure passage. He was a firm believer that it was better to obtain what was possible than what was perfect, since he believed programs could always be expanded or improved in the future. His attitude toward Social Security was typical: “With those taxes in there,” he said, “no damn politician can ever scrap my Social Security program.”

Then there was Lyndon Johnson, the only one of the three who himself was a creature of Congress. After having watched the New Deal coalition struggle against anti-communist Republicans in the 1950s, Johnson concluded that the good times in Washington usually lasted for about five minutes. Following the 1964 Democratic landslide, Johnson jumped at his window of opportunity to push for as many programs as he could — federal aid to higher education, Medicare, voting rights, immigration reform, anti-poverty programs and more.

The president was relentless as he lobbied key legislators, giving them “the treatment” that he perfected in Congress and keeping in constant phone contact until a deal was reached. According to the columnists Rowland Evans and Robert Novak, “the tone was supplication, accusation, cajolery, exuberance, scorn, tears, complaint, the hint of threat. It was all these together. It ran the gamut of human emotions. Its velocity was breathtaking, and it was all in one direction.”

Like FDR, Johnson was keenly aware of the need to create political space for legislators to reshape bills in the final stages of deliberations. This famously egocentric president was willing to let members receive public credit, as long as he got the bill that he wanted.”

Source: History News Network

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