Posted by: sweeneyblog | November 15, 2010

From a Political Junkie: Which Branch of Government Matters to You?

As Republicans assume power in the House, and make serious gains in the Senate, I notice an interesting trend as reporters ask them about their goals and objectives. You have all this power now, what are you going to do with it? The answer has always some variation on two themes: Stop the president in whatever he is doing, and investigate the president’s accomplishments of the last two years. Guess what those two have in common? They both are about the wrong branch of government.

Compare this to interviews with the Democrats as they took power in 2006. Same situation, they are stuck with a president of the other party and have to wait two years before they can do something about it. Interviews with Harry Reid, Nancy Pelosi and the rest focused around various legislative goals: raising the minimum wage, promoting investment in clean energy, cleaning up corruption in Congress, stricter rules on campaign finance, etc. In fact, they explicitly said they would not investigate the president or work directly to undermine him.

I think this reveals an interesting dichotomy with our political parties. The Republicans are mainly focused on the executive branch, and the powers and actions thereof, while the Democrats are mainly focused on the legislative branch and its abilities. In the last two years, with Democrats in control of the executive branch, Obama wasn’t issuing tons of signing statements or making big splashes about what he was going to do. Most of his focus was on meeting with Congress to get their agenda through.

Whenever Obama went to tackle an issue these last two years, his first instinct was to role it through the right committee, bring stakeholders in and craft effective legislation everyone could vote on. He held forums, discussions, roundtables. All the hallmarks of the legislative process. Whether he was effective or not isn’t the point, the point is his focus was on the legislative branch.

Compare that approach to when Bush wanted to do something – for example, invade Iraq. He made the decision, put troops in position and then got the War Resolution passed as an afterthought. You could say, well that’s the role of the commander-in-chief. Okay, here is a better comparison, privatize social security. The administration wrote most of the legislation and then handed it to Congress to pass. Bush then went on a tour to drum up support, but the opposition had outmaneuvered them and it died in Congress.

Reporter speculation is another metric by which to judge. I remember when the Obama/McCain race was in full swing; the newspapers would interview various politicians speculating about cabinet appointments on both sides. For the GOP, the most interest was in who would be McCain’s Secretary of Defense, Homeland Security chief or his Secretary of State. In other words, the departments that don’t interact with the legislative branch very much. Meanwhile on the Dems side, the talk was about who would be Secretary of Health and Human Services, or Secretary of the Interior, or Energy. These departments are so intertwined with the legislative branch that sometimes it is difficult to find where one stops and the other starts.

In many ways, this focus is indicative of the mindset of each party. The Republicans prefer the CEO, top-down method of governing where one person beats out the rest and makes the calls until someone else beats him out and everyone goes along with it. The Democrats are much more collectivist, trying to make sure everyone gets included and their voices heard, even at the extreme detriment of getting stuff done.

So what does this mean? I imagine we will see a nonstop series of bills fly through the House over the next two years, all aimed at hindering and embarrassing the president. I can see the Senate suddenly looking busy, as all the legislative effort goes into moving big pieces of meaty legislation through that creaking stubborn body. Finally, I see a great deal of frustration from the White House as they try to get the Republicans to focus on legislating, when all the Republicans want to do is take President Obama’s job.

For the next two years, both parties will be out of their comfort zone. The GOP will be struggling with the reins of the legislative process (and several bucking Tea Party colts in the stable) and the Dems will be left with the blunt hammer of the executive branch. It should be an interesting year.

Next month, I self-servingly make the case for eschewing Olympia consultants and supporting your local campaign managers.


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