Winning over Capitol Hill

September 12, 2016 Jeff Chidester and Tony Lucadamo
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The first year of a new presidency is a time of peak hope and optimism.  Fresh off an Election Day mandate and basking in the brief honeymoon period, many presidents have utilized this window to advance their agenda and pass signature legislation. For the 45th president, however, prospects for such a window are dim. 

On January 20th, one of the two most unpopular presidential candidates in modern times will take the oath of office following a long and bitter campaign. Further, most analysts agree that the next president is likely to face a divided legislature. Success or failure in the first year, therefore, will hinge on the next administration’s ability to work with the Congress.

On August 2, 2016, the University of Virginia’s Miller Center gathered four former White House Directors of Legislative Affairs for a three-hour, on-the-record, conversation on working with Congress during the first year of a new presidency. This roundtable, part of the Miller Center’s First Year: POTUS 2017 project, was convened to offer the next head of Legislative Affairs a framework to guide his or her activity during that critical window, as told by those who served in the position. 

Participating in the conversation were former Legislative Affairs Directors Fred McClure (1989-1991), Pat Griffin (1993-1996), Dan Meyer (2007-2009), and Phil Schiliro (2009-2011). The interview team was comprised of the Miller Center’s Bill Antholis, Jeff Chidester, and Tony Lucadamo, and the Brookings Institution’s Molly Reynolds. Highlights from this conversation can be found below, and you can read a full transcript of the conversation.


Building Your Team

The composition of the Legislative Affairs operation, and its position within the White House staff structure, will set the trajectory for the functioning of the office. The directors cautioned the incoming chief to prioritize the formation of his or her team and ensure that they have the requisite authority within the West Wing. All presidents say they want to engage with Congress. Picking the right team and protecting their position in the administration decides just how successful the Legislative Affairs shop will be.

Griffin: The tone is always set from the top, but as a general matter, in the direction the administration wants to take, and whether it’s engagement or not, and what the inner workings of that strategy are, a lot depends on how the internal structures are organized, where the Congressional Affairs person is in the hierarchy of senior advisers. … So it’s about the president, but there’s a lot inside that can make it work better or worse. … 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.

McClure: A president is well served by having somebody who has spent time on Capitol Hill, rather than necessarily going outside and getting some guys who haven’t had that experience.

Schiliro: Based on the strong advice from previous heads of Legislative Affairs…I was allowed to select everyone on the Legislative Affairs team, and the head of Legislative Affairs at the different departments would be by mutual agreement with each Secretary. That made coordination during the first two years much more effective.

McClure: One of the things that I insisted on… was 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. They were the guys who were going to have to go sell it to the appropriate persons on Capitol Hill. They needed to be involved in the development of the policy rolling out.

Griffin: Whoever the OLA director is, he or she has to be as far upstream in the decision-making process as possible.

How to Balance New Ideas and Standing Obligations in the First Year

A new president’s first year is a unique opportunity to set priorities and pass signature legislation. Each new administration hopes to make the most of its honeymoon period, after the election and before Congress turns its attention to the midterms of the following year. 

But the incoming team also faces the reality of the existing legislative calendar. In addition to pushing the new president’s big ideas, directors must navigate the other standing requirements of the first year—most importantly, funding the government and getting your nominations approved, all while spending as little political capital as possible.

Schiliro: The first thing I tried to do was remind everyone about the congressional calendar. The agenda and the calendar are like an Olympic event: There are the compulsories, the bills that have to be done, and then there are other items Congress and the president might want to do. So we had our compulsories, but we didn’t want that to be the entire agenda….The first thing the president was going to have to do, whether he wanted to or not, was TARP…Second was the 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. In April, because of the calendar deadline, we worked with Congress to pass the budget. That’s another $1 trillion. And in May we had to do the war supplemental, which was about $100 billion. So as we’re sitting there in November looking ahead, and everybody has grand visions of what they want to do, the calendar is sobering. The big items for the first five months weren’t discretionary…they had to be done. And when we added up all those numbers, the cost is close to $4 trillion. That’s what we had to ask members to vote on right from the get-go.

At the same time, the president didn’t want to be limited to just that mandatory agenda. He wanted to pursue his other priorities—health care, climate change, and financial reform. So we had to figure out a way to make that work in that timeframe and then schedule it…. It’s critical to get the calendar and the schedule right….We had some very astute people in the White House, and it was obvious to them that not a single thing on the list would be a political winner….So right from the beginning, there are questions in the White House whether we really have to take on so many difficult political battles. That dynamic is very real. But there wasn’t a choice.

Meyer: If you do some of those compulsories poorly, let’s say you screw up one nomination, it affects your whole agenda. You have to get the basics right. It gives you the credibility to do the other things you want to do.

Griffin: You look like you’re stumbling, and then the whole story becomes Will he be able to do anything?

Schiliro: But a new president starts off with a goodwill bankroll, and in each one of these, even if they are done right, the account is drawn down. In the same way some people in the White House say, “There’s no political benefit to this,” people on the Hill feel the same way. Dan remembers this on the second TARP vote; people wanted no part of that TARP vote. It was politically toxic at the time. So one of the first things the new president has to do is ask people to vote on something that they know is against their political interest, and you’re appealing to them because of the good of the country. You’re drawing down your account very, very quickly.

Schiliro: Nominations take up valuable floor time, so let’s go back to the calendar. In the first two years, the Senate confirmed 899 confirmations, and there’s a point where there’s only so much floor time to run a process.

Insider Tips for the Next Legislative Affairs Director

Directors will quickly discover that they must simultaneously lobby both Congress and the West Wing. Congress is naturally skeptical of the president’s chief congressional lobbyist, but those within the executive branch often clash with the official seeking to find common ground on the Hill.  Maintaining this balance requires directors to be nimble, resilient, and above all, cognizant of when they are no longer effective in the position. 

Griffin: The campaign guys are ready to use the stick and you, who have to go up there and, as Dan said, ask for this and then that, and then that, and then that—everybody strings it all together. You know, you have to play the carrot, and after a while, you look like you’re a shill for the Congress. It creates a very difficult dynamic inside the Oval.

McClure: “Who are you working for?”

Griffin: “Oh, he’s just protecting his own butt. He’s just protecting his buddies. This is not what’s in your interests, Mr. President.” That conversation goes on.

Schiliro: The same thing is happening on the Hill, because 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….

Griffin: You cannot become cynical. You have to remain an advocate for them in some fashion and you have to be smart about it. Sometimes you have to throw them under the bus so you don’t lose your credentials internally, but you cannot afford—the president doesn’t need a cynical Congressional Affairs person handling the Congress. You can do that when you leave.

Meyer: Don’t get overly turf conscious…. 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.… A lot of Leg Affairs people get anxiety ridden when other people in the White House are talking to the Hill….This is a big issue with most Legislative Affairs officers.

Schiliro: I concluded two years was as much as you could do it… because your goodwill account, if the job is being done right, at the end of the two years…your account is spent in the White House….If you get worn down by it, it’s time to leave the job and have somebody else come in who has a clean slate and will fight those fights.

The Wisdom—and Necessity—of Forging Relationships on the Hill

People matter. At the heart of the Legislative Affairs position is building relationships with members of Congress and their staffs. But who those members are, and how Congress is comprised, is consequential to how the director approaches his or her charge. They must be able to build trust and deftly interpret the needs and intentions of each member. They also must be willing to take a few bruises now and then for the president.

Meyer: The dynamic of the congressional makeup makes a big difference.

Schiliro: I worked in the House and Senate for twenty-five years, I love Congress, and I’m a big believer in it. But it is a very difficult institution, and if you’re working in an administration, it’s an extraordinarily difficult institution, because there are 535 people and despite best intentions, the president can’t be meeting with them all, all the time….Don’t take the job if you discourage easily or are afraid of getting yelled at.

Meyer: Or if you’re afraid to say no to members of Congress.

Meyer: It’s a people business, you have to understand that and understand that trust matters, and you can develop trust relationships with people of a different party, which you need to do if you’re in divided government.

McClure: Trust goes beyond staff, beyond the head of Legislative Affairs and chief of staff to the Speaker. It also goes to the members, because it is important that the person in Legislative Affairs develops a trust relationship…that you could have conversations with, that were confidential, that you could trust and take to the bank. The only thing you have is your word, and making that the centerpiece of the relationship will make for the most effective service in the position.

Schiliro: Your relationships on the other side of the aisle, your relationships in your own party, are really important to maintain….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 nuance.

Schiliro: There’s still no Democratic equivalent to talk radio and Fox [News]. So even if the Republican leadership wants to compromise, if Sean Hannity, Rush Limbaugh, and that group goes a different way, it puts incredible pressure on the rank and file….The reality in a lot of congressional offices starts with the phones. When the phones start ringing off the hook because talk radio starts a phone campaign, that gets through to some members. It creates a distorted reality, but it often works. That’s a different kind of leadership and over the last twenty-five years has really become much more of a force.

Cooperation or Confrontation: Prospects for White House-Congressional Relations in 2017

The next director will seek to govern in the wake of the most vitriolic presidential campaign in modern history. Next year may be a time of deepening division and partisan gridlock. Or the dysfunction in Washington may reach a tipping point, and the Legislative Affairs office may play a lead role in bridging the partisan divide and forging consensus across a range of policy areas. The directors offered their thoughts on the potential environments within which the next director will work in his or her first year.

Meyer: [Hillary Clinton] may want to distinguish herself. No president wants to just be the next term of his predecessor, it’s just human nature. You want to make your own history and distinguish yourself, and that would be the most dramatic way, in my mind, for her to distinguish herself, to at least initially try to get something done on a bipartisan basis. I would argue, from Paul Ryan’s perspective and the establishment Republicans, that they need to get some stuff done too. If she gets elected with a Republican House or Senate, or both, and all that the Republicans do for the next four years is obstruct, you’re going to end up with the next Donald Trump in 2020.

Griffin: If she [Hillary Clinton] goes in there and just plays it straight with the Democrats, gets into the dynamic of just do nothing…I think her term is done…she’s defined by the first six months.

Meyer: It depends on the individuals and their personalities. So if you’re in a divided government, you need to find people who can do that. If you have the biggest partisan hard-ass and you put them in as head of Legislative Affairs, in a divided-government situation, it’s not going to end well.

Schiliro: One of John Boehner’s problems was not having the votes in his caucus for what he wanted to do. That could be a bigger problem for Paul Ryan.

Meyer: If I were advising Paul Ryan, I’d say take a risk at [bipartisan compromise]…Yes, you put at risk, perhaps, some of the gains you might otherwise get in 2018, but you want to think longer term, in my mind. Otherwise, you could have a repeat in 2020 of what happened in 2016, and that’s going to be a disaster.

Griffin: We may be moving toward a more bipartisan foreign policy potential, because we’re out of the transition of a war that nobody liked and President Obama feeling he was winding it down. That’s made big gaps in the philosophy.

Meyer: I do think an interesting phenomenon of a Trump presidency would be to drive a more bipartisan foreign policy.

The Transition: Seek Out Your Predecessors

The next Legislative Affairs director will begin his or her work in earnest during the transition. While much of the focus will necessarily be on charting passage of the president-elect’s policy agenda, the directors recommended first taking a look back at how previous directors led the office. They also noted the importance of the outgoing administration in determining whether or not a seamless transfer of power will occur.

Schiliro: [The outgoing Legislative Affairs director] gave us a handbook that was very, very useful as we’re first trying to figure out how to do some aspects of the office. Having a blueprint that the previous people have done made it much easier as we did things. … The combination of Pat’s knowledge and then Dan’s generosity and getting me on training wheels was a terrific combination.

Griffin: There’s also a measure of the attitude of the people who are taking over. It’s not only about reaching out to the other side; it’s about whether they are smart enough to tap the historical experience on their own side. … It’s smart to reach out for everything you can, both on the other side and inside, but there’s no guarantee.

Meyer: I really do believe the key component [of a successful transition] is…the perspective of the person who is occupying the Oval Office.

Read the full transcript of the conversation.