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Having it all

Assistant Professor Kathryn Pearson on likelihoods of policy change

In America's system of institutional checks and balances, what is the effect on policy of having both the President and a majority of Congress in the same political party?

Although unlikely, if the Republicans were to win across the board in this November's election, they would pursue a partisan policy agenda with the high levels of enthusiasm and party discipline--and encounter the same obstacles--that they did during President Bush's first term. The continuation of divided government, with John McCain replacing George Bush in the White House and Democratic majorities presiding over the House and Senate, is, of course, a very real scenario. Although both parties would have incentives to compromise enough to enact some of the policies they campaigned on, much of the current partisan gridlock would likely persist.

But what if those running on a platform of change take both institutions? Specifically, if Barack Obama were to be elected in November, and if the Democrats maintain their recently re-established Congressional majority, is this a recipe for swift, easy passage of the agenda of liberal Democratic proposals that have accumulated since Republicans took control of Congress in 1994?

Assistant Professor Kathryn Pearson, an expert on Congress and congressional elections, says not necessarily so swift, not necessarily so easy.

Pearson has worked on Capitol Hill for two members of Congress and now teaches on campaigns and elections. As a scholar, she studies both congressional elections and how Congress works. She shared her insights into how this year's campaign might translate into next year's congressional session if one party wins both institutions.

"Campaigns matter," says Pearson. "And campaign promises matter. But the research of political scientists has clearly demonstrated the general inapplicability of the concept of a mandate. There are all sorts of reasons an individual voter will vote for a particular candidate, but in general, we do not see voters voting on the basis of specific issue positions."

If Obama is elected it will not be based on the details of his program as spelled out by major policy addresses that few Americans heard or the position statements on his campaign Web site that few read. Instead, "Most political scientists will attribute an Obama victory, if it occurs, to structural factors that favored the Democratic nominee this year, whoever he or she turned out to be," Pearson says.

Therefore, if the public hires Obama, more attention should be paid to the general themes of his campaign message than to specific legislative ideas. Obama would have won because the public wanted "change" from the status quo of the Bush years, but the details of that change remain to be worked out.

When it comes time to work out those details, Obama would surely suggest that the public gave him a mandate to make the changes he talked about during the campaign--Iraq, health care, taxing and spending priorities, the economy, and more. But he would have to work with 435 members of the House and 100 in the Senate, who have their own ideas about what their constituents sent them to Washington to do.

When an election gives control of both Congress and the White House to the same party, "expectations are high," Pearson says, and they should be. But the idea that one-party government is the key that unlocks deadlock is an oversimplification, as was illustrated the last time the Democrats were handed the keys to the Senate, the House, and the White House all at the same time.

That was 1993, after Bill Clinton's first election and after 12 years of Republican administrations. The popular new president had 56 Democrats in the Senate, an 80-vote Democratic advantage in the House, plus a solid election win. Nonetheless, the session produced few landmark laws and is remembered more for its failures than for its successes, Pearson explains. Notably, a major overhaul of the U.S. health care system, which had been the signature issue of the Clinton campaign, never even came to a vote. President Clinton and First Lady Hillary Clinton, whom he appointed to devise a health care plan, didn't consult with congressional leaders early in the process about what they would support in a health care overhaul, nor what they thought could pass.

That failure has been studied extensively by scholars seeking to understand how it happened. "The key lesson," Pearson says, "is to start the legislative process with all the key players in the room: experts from within the new administration, top congressional Democrats and Republicans, representatives of the AMA, the AARP and other key interest groups, and then try to devise a plan that at least a majority of them will buy into, avoiding the kind of disagreements that would lead to a new round of 'Harry and Louise' advertising." (The supposedly ordinary Americans Harry and Louise talked about how the Clinton plan was going to ruin their health care in a series of television ads.)

Pearson believes it's likely, but not inevitable, that a President Obama could pass an overhaul of the health care system that would greatly expand the portion of Americans covered by some kind of health insurance. There is broad popular support for such a change, and congressional Democrats favor the general goal of expanding coverage, although there are plenty of devilish differences in the details. Because of his Senate background, Obama knows the congressional leaders better than Clinton did, Pearson says. And he knows that the way Congress has functioned over recent years is different from the Clinton era.

The rules, norms, and leadership of the Congress are particular research interests of Pearson's. Since 1994 Republicans have brought about a significant increase in the power of the Speaker of the House at the expense of committee chairs, Pearson says. Term limits on committee chairs and a de-emphasis on seniority have reduced the power of the chairs. Majority party leaders exert control over the Rules Committee and allow fewer amendments on bills.

The current Democratic leaders, especially Speaker Nancy Pelosi, have inherited enhanced positions and know how to make them work, explains Pearson. One of the keys to the adoption of major policy changes through Congress next year would be for a new Democratic president to stay on the same page with Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. To do that, he would have to respect that, as leaders of their party's caucuses, "their number one concern will be getting their members reelected and growing their majority," Pearson says. "That means they might want to avoid certain issues that they believe will give political heartburn to some of their vulnerable members."

There has also been a major change among rank-and-file members of Congress since Bill Clinton's first term: "Congress is much, much more polarized along party lines," Pearson remarks. Few conservative Democrats or liberal Republicans remain, and the tendency to vote along party lines is so great that the "party unity" scores maintained by Congressional Quarterly (which measures the likelihood of a member to vote with the majority of his or her own party and against the majority of the other party) set a new record high among Democrats in the 2008 congressional session, Pearson says. "In Minnesota, you even have someone like Tim Walz [a freshman Democrat who ran as a moderate and won in a Republican-leaning southern Minnesota district] voting with the Democrats 94 percent of the time," she says.

That's a bit of a good news-bad news joke for the next president, if he is a Democrat. If he works well with the speaker and majority leader, he can expect big majorities of Democrats to be with him on key votes. But it also means that a big majority of Republicans would be likely to stick together and vote against the Democratic position on key issues. The idea that this elevated level of partisanship would diminish because Obama ran as a new-style post-partisan leader strikes Pearson as a fantasy.

The Democrats head into the election clinging to a bare 51-49 Senate majority but are widely expected to add several pickups in November. In the Senate, given the threat of a filibuster, it will take 60 votes (the number necessary to break a filibuster) to get action on major changes (unless the changes can be enacted via the budget process, in which Senate rules protect many votes from filibusters). "So, assuming there will be 55 or so Democrats in the Senate, it will require the support of five or more Republicans to get big things done," Pearson says. Moderate Republicans are more common in the Senate than in the House, but the danger of filibusters emphasizes again the importance of a new Democratic president "starting any policy process with some Republicans in the room."

In the House, the next president's agenda can pass with only Democratic votes. The party goes into the election with a 236-199 advantage and a possibility of adding to it in November. A potential barrier to legislative success in the House could come from the Democratic subcaucus called the Blue Dog Democrats, Pearson predicts.

Blue Dogs are a subcaucus of moderate Democrats who emphasize balanced-budget conservatism. For much of the last session, they followed Pelosi's leadership, Pearson says, but in the past few months, they have become more assertive. If the Blue Dogs perceived that Obama's programs were adding too much to the deficit, they might break ranks. There are 50 Blue Dogs (including Minnesotan Collin Peterson), and they have a (new and sometimes-enforced) caucus rule requiring that all Blue Dogs vote together if two-thirds of the caucus agrees. If a new president's spending increases or tax cuts alienated the Blue Dogs, that could be another way that promises made during the campaign could fail to be kept.

While the stars might be aligned for substantial policy changes to be adopted next congressional session, a new Democratic president would need to learn from the blunders of past presidents, keep congressional leaders on board, stay flexible on the details, reach across the aisle in the Senate, and take care not to offend the fiscal conservative Blue Dogs in the House. Not an easy task.