You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

Barack Vs. The Hill

Let's leave ideology aside for a moment: Is Congress even equipped to handle Obama's ambitious agenda?

If the president’s agenda were relegated only to fixing a demolished banking and credit system while ensuring that vital industries like the automobile and steel ones don’t disappear, it would be overwhelming. But now President Obama is asking legislators to pass sweeping health care reform, sweeping climate change legislation, sweeping changes in energy policy, and more. This week, William Galston and others have raised the question of whether the Obama team lacks focus. Fair enough. But I’d like to tackle another question: Is Capitol Hill even capable of handling so many projects at once?

Well, there are certainly reasons to think it isn’t. Getting Congress to seize the day on an agenda this supersized is always daunting--a bit like asking a veteran couch potato to drop the Funyuns and run a marathon. Moreover, much of the partisan dysfunction and sharp ideological divisions, not to mention the chest-thumping and vanity, that characterized Congress in the Clinton and Bush years remain intact. Republicans in the House were exultant when they denied Obama every one of their votes for his stimulus package, and Republicans in the Senate were sullen and resentful when three of their own defected to make the bare minimum of 60 votes to get that package through. It has also been a bridge too far for Democrats in the House and Senate to bring some Republicans in at the conception stage of major legislation.

Nevertheless, I remain optimistic that this Congress will end up pushing through an historic amount of ambitious legislation over the next two years. One reason is that things are different than they were when Bill Clinton came into office with nearly identical numbers to now--258 Democrats in the House and 57 in the Senate--and had a tough time of it. Back then, Democrats had been in the House majority for 38 consecutive years; they saw themselves as the permanent government, while the president, no matter his party, was an ephemeral figure of little importance to their status. When that theory flamed out with the Gingrich-led landslide in 1994, they had twelve miserable years in the minority to think about it. Now the attitudes are at least a bit different; that is why Democrats hung together on the stimulus despite no Republican support in the House and the bare minimum in the Senate, and got it through only four weeks after the inaugural. Of course, Obama will lose (and already has lost) some of those Democrats, both on the left and among the Blue Dogs--but he will have a real chance down the road of finding some more Republicans, especially in the Senate, to make up the slack.

Second, we have a president and a vice president, and a White House Chief of Staff, who understand Congress. When Jimmy Carter started out with a heavy agenda and gave it to Congress, almost everything on it went to the Ways and Means Committee. The result, predictable to the pros, was overload and near-gridlock. Of course, Ways and Means will play a big role this time as well, but a large share of the Obama agenda will be channeled through other committees in the House and Senate--and the key health, environment, energy, and education reforms will be crafted from committee products in leadership sessions, with the active connivance and involvement of the administration.

The Obama team also understands that it’s much easier to effect change when the president’s policy goals are written into big and wide-ranging bills, like the stimulus package, in addition to discrete, issue-specific bills. Take health reform. We have already had almost $225 billion devoted to health, including a sizable down payment for health IT and a major expansion of coverage to children and others. The next step does not have to be a full-blown, soup-to-nuts comprehensive package. The administration can take out another major chunk of reform in one bill, and it can follow that with another, and then it’ll be well along the way to its ultimate goal. The same is true of energy policy. If there is, as I believe there will be, another stimulus package before the year is out, that will reinforce the basic point, with more money for alternative energy and conservation greasing the skids for a separate effort at cap-and-trade.

Third, we are in crisis. The economy will get worse before it gets better, and the sense of urgency needed to move a legislative process that is not designed to move quickly will be there often enough to push action forward. To cite just one of many examples: The sense that Social Security was about to run out of money and into insolvency was what triggered the major reforms to the system in 1983.

Also, Obama has one more secret weapon to use on Capitol Hill, one he may not deploy but that could be wielded effectively as a threat. That is reconciliation, a budget process that Reagan used successfully and that forces sweeping action without the usual budget need to get 60 votes in the Senate.

There are limits to the use of reconciliation--the substance has to be tied to the budget and can’t add to projected deficits--but Obama can use the threat of it to say to Republicans, “Come and reason with me,” with the alternative being that he’ll do big things and they’ll have no input. He will still have to convince his fellow Democrats in Congress to let the minority actually function at the table, but it’s not an outrageous imposition when drafting bills in important policy areas like health, education, and energy, where many of the options and solutions do not fit neatly into traditional left-right lines.

Of course, as is congressional custom, there will be the usual inter- and intra-party divisions, and plenty of delaying tactics to bollix up the works. The blindness of the majority (say, on earmarks in the omnibus spending bill) and the rank obduracy and ideological rigidity of the minority are enough to make anyone skeptical about the 111th Congress’s ability to pass such a breathtakingly large agenda. Lots of savvy members and former members, like Jane Harman and John Breaux, have been anything but optimistic. Still, color me rosy. When we look back at the 111th Congress years from now, I believe there is a real chance we’ll recall its truly impressive record of major legislative action and see that it rivaled the Congresses that ushered in both the New Deal and the Great Society.

Norman Ornstein is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.

By Norman Ornstein