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Spare Me the Details

Barack Obama's aloof relationship with Congress.

12:00 AM, Apr 16, 2009 • By GARY ANDRES
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Barack Obama tied down a series of big legislative victories in his first few months in office--an expanded health-care program for kids, massive economic stimulus legislation, and substantially increased funding for this year's federal budget. Yet ironically these notches in his accomplishment belt are due in part to his legislative aloofness. He gave Congress plenty of rope with which to wrap up these achievements--and they used it.

Call it strategic detachment. This president leaves many of the details up to his party in Congress -- an approach that pleases Democrats but rankles Republicans. Obama chooses this course not out of weakness, but because he believes it's the strongest tactical approach. But every decision includes trade offs. His method of chalking up legislative wins transforms his bipartisan goals into a pipedream, and risks turning a lot of big decisions over to less popular Democratic leaders in Congress.

Of course, all presidents are formal partners in the lawmaking process with Congress whether the chief executive likes it or not. Every new law requires deliberate White House action. The Constitution gives the president 10 days (not including Sundays) to approve or disapprove legislation. If he signs it or ignores it, the bill becomes a law (the rare pocket veto is an exception to this practice, when Congress adjourns within the 10-day window after passing legislation and the president fails to act, thus killing the bill). The president can also articulate his objections and return the legislation without his approval, in which case Congress can pass the legislation again by a two-thirds vote, notwithstanding the president's objections, and override his veto.

But modern White Houses engage with lawmakers in a variety of ways beyond these formal constitutional requirements. And this involvement can include very prescriptive advice. For example, in 1993 Bill Clinton told a joint session of Congress that if they sent him a health care bill that did not include universal coverage for all Americans, he would veto it. In recent history, the White House also opines on nearly every piece of legislation Congress considers before a floor vote with detailed communications known as Statements of Administration Policy (SAPs).

Yet this president is pursuing a different path, at least based on early indications. On the major legislative accomplishments to date--stimulus, children's health and spending legislation--the White House left most of the details up to Congress. Moreover, when it comes to other initiatives still in the pipeline--climate change, health reform and education--the president has signaled his strong desire for congressional action but has not sent specific legislation to Capitol Hill.

In contrast to previous administrations, the Obama White House has also not routinely issued its views on all legislation Congress considers. Despite a brisk legislative pace through the middle of April, the Office of Management and Budget has only released three SAPs so far this year. Part of this may be a function of a new administration getting up and running. But looking back to the beginning of the Bush Administration in 2001, the White House opined on five times as many bills Congress considered in the first four months.

Some lawmakers see value in the White House's legislative detachment. It gives them the space and tools they need to make their sausage. Presidents can also strategically use the separation. They can claim credit for Congress passing things they like and distance themselves from legislative product and processes they don't.

Moreover, institutional conditions are ripe for President Obama to use his pattern of aloofness to his advantage. With large majorities of his party running Congress, chances are the end product won't be too at odds with White House wishes. Obama can give his allies in Congress the flexibility they need to craft a product and then join with lawmakers in the Rose Garden to claim credit. If the process succeeds, he wins. If it flops? Well, that's Congress's fault.

But Obama needs to make sure he doesn't turn too much of his agenda over to a less popular branch of government. While the president's job performance levels are still strong, linking his agenda too closely to far less popular Democratic leaders in Congress could be a mistake.