The 2016 election, like four others before it, saw one candidate, Hillary Clinton, win a majority of the popular vote and a different candidate, President-elect Donald Trump, garner a majority in the Electoral College.1 Despite this incongruity, Speaker of the House Paul Ryan (R-Wisc.) and other Republicans began claiming, in the election’s immediate aftermath, that Trump had earned a mandate from the voters to work with Congress and adopt the agenda on which he campaigned (Pace 2016). Indeed, this kind of mandate rhetoric is common when new presidents, facing polarized parties and low trust in governing institutions, need to defend themselves against critics (Azari 2014).
The effects of these mandate claims on congressional behavior may be short-lived (Grossback, Peterson, and Stimson 2007; Azari 2016), but several studies have documented greater legislative success for a president’s proposals at the beginning of a new administration (Beckmann and Godfrey 2007; Cohen, Bond, and Fleischer 2013; Dominguez 2005). Will Trump enjoy the same? Perhaps, especially if he is able to rely on particular legislative procedures that ease the path of some of his policy priorities through Congress. Here, however, we outline three factors that may present challenges for the next administration: the makeup of the 115th Congress, the underwater popularity of President-elect Trump, and the 2017 congressional calendar. It then pivots to practical thoughts offered by a group of former legislative affairs directors on how choices made by the 45th president can affect executive-legislative relations in the first year.
Research suggests that a president’s ability to advance his legislative agenda is affected significantly by the partisan control of Congress as well as polarization within the chambers. Cohen, Bond, and Fleischer (2013), for example, document how in the Senate, greater polarization attenuates any advantage of shared party control. When the chamber is more polarized, they argue, it is harder to build a 60-vote coalition to overcome a filibuster threat. An analysis of cloture motions—that is, votes to end obstruction, often by the minority party—specifically highlights this challenge for presidents who have a small majority in the Senate, finding that majority party presidents win less on cloture votes than minority party presidents do (Bond, Fleisher, and Cohen 2014).
President-elect Trump comes to office in the face of high levels of polarization (McCarty, Poole, and Rosenthal 2016) and what is likely a 52-seat Republican majority in the Senate,2 so moving many of his policy initiatives through Congress, then, will require the cooperation of a small number of Senate Democrats. A key exception to this is the budget reconciliation process, which protects certain budget-related legislation from a filibuster. Indeed, the participants in our conversation anticipated that under a Trump administration and a Republican Congress, a major reconciliation bill is likely—a possibility borne out in many post-election media reports (e.g., Bade and Bresnahan 2016).
For other policies not achievable through reconciliation, Beckmann (2010) demonstrates that when the ideological gap between the president and the most moderate members of the other party is bigger, it is more difficult for the president to succeed in getting the Senate to approve important legislation. Bipartisan negotiations between the president and leaders of the opposite party, meanwhile, are more likely when the president is politically strong (Beckmann 2016). While one indicator of political strength—the honeymoon period at the beginning of a new administration—would work in Trump’s favor, others may not. Trump’s electoral coalition includes relatively few states won by senators from the minority party (11 of the 48 members of the Democratic caucus), for example. Building the necessary legislative coalition for the Trump administration’s priorities may prove challenging in some cases, even in the presence of Republican majorities in both chambers.
A second dynamic that can affect success at the beginning of an administration is the president-elect’s approval rating.3 In the past, higher approval ratings at the beginning of an administration were driven in part by voters who had not yet formed an opinion of the president-elect’s performance (Brody 1991; Dominguez 2009). Over time, however, presidential approval has become increasingly polarized. According to the Pew Research Center, during the Clinton administration, 80 percent of Democrats and 27 percent of Republicans, on average, approved of his performance. During the first seven years of the Obama administration (through 2015), the figure for Democrats was identical, but had fallen to 14 percent among Republicans (Pew Research Center 2014).
As a result, it’s possible that Trump will not enjoy a similar grace period. Although the last seven presidents have enjoyed an average initial approval rating of 60 percent, they have dropped an average of 14 percentage points over their first year in the White House (Gallup 2016). The fact that Trump begins with an immediate post-election favorability rating (42%) that is substantially lower than each of the last three newly elected presidents,4 however, suggests he, especially, would have a lot of ground to make up.
In addition, the Trump administration may find itself struggling to take advantage of one of the presidency’s most significant legislative tools early in 2017: the ability to set the agenda, or emphasize certain issues for congressional action (Peterson 1990; Rudalevige 2005). At present, it appears that much of Congress’s calendar in early 2017 could be taken up by what one participant in our conversation, Phil Schiliro, called “the compulsories,” or things Congress must get done. At present, the list of congressional compulsories for 2017 may include appointments to the cabinet and the Supreme Court, resolution of unfinished spending bills from this year and work on next year’s counterparts, a measure to raise the debt ceiling, and a package to address the Budget Control Act’s discretionary spending caps (Snell and DeBonis 2016; Shutt and Mejdrich 2016). While the politics of these issues may be smoother under unified government than under divided—Republicans are, for example, thought to be eager to address the debt limit without the same level of conflict the issue saw under President Obama (Weyl, Everett, and Bresnahan 2016)—they will still each consume valuable legislative time. As President Trump works with his staff to set and advance legislative priorities, then, he will need to find a way to work within these existing constraints.
As part of the Miller Center’s “First Year: POTUS 2017” project, four former directors of the White House Office of Legislative Affairs (OLA) gathered for a private, on-the-record, conversation prior to the election to offer general guidance to the next president as he develops a legislative agenda. The directors agreed that the current political environment portends challenges for the next administration. Nonetheless, they provided the following thoughts on how the selection of a legislative affairs team, and the strategy that team pursues, can affect what happens in 2017.
To be effective, directors must have the power to select the officials working with Congress. At a minimum, this includes the immediate team, but there is significant value in selecting the congressional liaisons in other Cabinet departments as well. Once the team has been assembled, the director must then fight to ensure a strong place within the White House structure. According to Clinton’s OLA director, Pat Griffin:
A lot depends on how the internal structures are organized, where the Congressional Affairs person is in the hierarchy of senior advisers. … How it’s operationalized will depend on who the Chief of Staff is, where that OLA person sits in that scheme, and whether or not they’re in the first tier or second tier of advisers or executing because your Chief of Staff thinks he or she is the head of Congress and the world.
They should lobby to keep themselves, in Griffin’s words, “as far upstream in the decision-making process as possible. This includes being engaged in policy development.” George H.W. Bush’s first OLA director, Fred McClure insists that “whoever on my legislative teams had responsibility for the substantive subject matter area actually sat in and was involved in all of the policy meetings internal to the White House as we were developing it, because they were the guys who were going to have to go sell it.” Not only that, but by being upstream legislative affairs officials are in the ideal position to advise on the relative feasibility of an agenda item passing Congress. Thus, they can at least weigh in at times when they may be asked to push a reform agenda that isn’t likely to pass.
Campaigning is about what a candidate wants to do; governing is about what an administration has to do. New administrations are often surprised by the number of legislative issues they are forced to confront in the first year—getting appointments confirmed, passing the first budget, and, as most presidents have discovered, managing an unexpected crisis. This challenge was particularly acute in the first year of the Obama presidency, as the administration worked to face down the economic crisis. Phil Schiliro, who served as the first head of OLA for President Obama, recalled how that impacted the administration’s agenda:
The first thing the president was going to have to do, whether he wanted to or not, was TARP… The second thing was a stimulus. In addition to that, none of the appropriations bills had been done for the previous year, so in March, we had to do the CR [continuing resolution] for $1 trillion. That we had to do. In April, because we wanted to be on time, we did the budget, that was another $1 trillion that we had to do, put a vote on that. And in May we had to do the war supplemental, which was about $100 million. So as we’re sitting there in November, and everybody has grand visions of what they want to do, you show them the calendar and you say, “These are things we have to do in the first five months. They’re not discretionary, we’re not going to have a debate on it.” And when you add up all those numbers, we’re close to $4 trillion. That’s what we were going up and asking members to vote on right from the get-go, and you just have to work with that.
At the same time, the president didn’t want to say, “Well, that’s all we’re going to do. That’s it. We’re not going to do health care, we’re not going to try climate change, we’re not going to do Dodd-Frank. That’s it for the year.” So you have to figure out a way to make that work in that timeframe and then schedule it…Really working with the calendar and getting a schedule matters.
Failure to execute on any of these early obligations can be damaging to the rest of the first year plans. Meyer noted: “Let’s say you screw up one nomination, it affects your whole agenda, because then you have to get the basics right. It gives you the credibility to do the other things you want to do.” To be effective, directors must ensure that they and other senior members of the administration understand that calendar and build their strategy within it.
Legislative affairs directors occupy a unique—and at times awkward—position at the nexus of the White House and Capitol Hill. While they are officially the chief congressional lobbyist, they must also lobby the president and other senior administration officials in order to reach agreement on legislation. As Griffin noted, “after a while, you look like you’re a shill for the Congress. It creates a very difficult dynamic inside the Oval.” But a similar dynamic takes shape on the Hill, according to Schiliro: “they want you to say yes to everything and you’re going up there and you say no, no, no, no. And so they think you’re a shill for the White House.”
Directors must also remember that they are not the only channel between the administration and Congress. Vice President-elect Mike Pence served in the House of Representatives for twelve years, and the administration seems inclined to leverage those ties on the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue. Meyer urged the next director to embrace this reality, with one important caveat: “If you have people in the administration who can be a resource on the Hill, use them. Now, you have to manage them; you have to create a system, so that you’re actually managing the communications back and forth.” Without a functional system, things can grow disorganized quickly. Dan Meyer, an OLA director for George W. Bush says that Karl Rove was essentially “one man leg-affairs shop.” Rove constantly held meetings with Congress despite a lack of prior consent, much the bemusement of Meyer’s staff.
At its heart, OLA is, as Meyer described, “a people business.” Developing trust with your counterparts on the Hill is therefore essential to the job. “The only thing you have is your word,” said McClure, “and making that the centerpiece of the relationship will make for the most effective service in the position.” This is particularly important in the contemporary Congress, where the fact that each election offers the possibility of a switch in partisan control has heightened levels of partisan competition (Lee 2016). Congress is a difficult institution. Directors are sure to make members angry from time to time. But maintaining that trust will ensure a solid working relationship, even in tense moments.
Trust also allows directors to be able to interpret what they’re hearing on the Hill. As Schiliro notes: “If someone of your own party says, ‘This is not going to happen,’ you really have to learn how to interpret that. Does that really mean it’s not going to happen, or are they’re saying, ‘I’m telling you it’s not going to happen, but I understand it is going to happen’? That’s a subtle thing, and whoever has that job, that’s a really important thing.” While the 115th Congress’s partisan makeup favors Trump’s legislative priorities, whether the legislative affairs team can build working relationships based on mutual trust also matters.
Like many presidents, Donald Trump and his team may well enjoy a honeymoon period in 2017. How much they are able to accomplish in that window depends on their ability to build and maintain coalitions in Congress to pass their legislative priorities. Republican majorities in both houses make that all the more possible, though the margins, especially in the Senate, are slim. Acting on their legislative priorities, moreover, will have to be balanced with a host of “compulsory” legislative activities; namely, appointments to the Cabinet and Supreme Court, early spending bills, and a measure to increase the debt ceiling.
These challenges are not unprecedented. A recent gathering of White House directors of legislative affairs offered thoughts on what matters for those on the front lines of this battle in the first year: building a strong team and keeping them “upstream” in the legislative process; mastering the balance between first year requirements and the administration’s priorities; developing the proper number and type of channels between the White House and the Hill; and building solid working relationships, based on trust, with members of Congress.
Ronald Reagan once quipped: “I have wondered at times what the Ten Commandments would have looked like if Moses had run them through the U.S. Congress.” Indeed, the Trump administration will have to navigate significant headwinds in 2017. In order to work with their colleagues down Pennsylvania Avenue, President Trump and his congressional affairs team must take a sober look at these realities, and develop its own blueprint for the first year.
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