Research News

Congress in danger of losing relevancy as presidents work around it

By obstructing most legislation President Obama sends its way, Congress has weakened rather than exercised its power, says a Vanderbilt University political expert.

“It used to be that interest groups would go to Congress first,” said Bruce Oppenheimer, professor of political science at Vanderbilt University. “But increasingly, presidents are bringing groups into the White House, negotiating with them, getting everyone on board and then taking some sort of action, whether it’s executive action, changing regulations or other activity.”

Not just Obama

Obama isn’t the first to do this. Modern presidents dating back to at least Ronald Reagan have yielded influence through strategies such as signing statements and executive orders, controlling the priorities of cabinet members or directing how rigidly various laws are enforced.

“On various occasions that clearly stretches the interpretation of what the legal authority of a president may be,” Oppenheimer said. “But to stop the president, Congress has to pass legislation to overturn it or go to court and try to stop it. Both of those are time-consuming tasks, and may be very difficult to achieve.”

While each modern president has pushed the envelope, Obama has gone the furthest.

“I don’t think presidents necessarily want to use executive authority, but they see it as strategically what they should do if they can’t have a reliable partner in Congress who is willing to work with them,” Oppenheimer said.

Obama has gone around Congress as he tackles issues including gun control, AIDs education, civil rights, the economy and foreign policy.

New research

Oppenheimer makes the observations in “It’s Hard to Get Mileage out of Congress,” a chapter in the upcoming book Congress and Policy Making in the 21st Century (Cambridge University Press). It will be released this year.

Uncooperative congress

Upon Obama’s election in 2008, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) publically stated his goal of denying Obama a second term by blocking any legislation the president endorsed. Although Obama did initially try to work with Congress, he has long since turned to executive orders and other methods. He has been upfront about the strategy, talking about it publicly.

“For example, Obama decided his Justice Department would not go to court to defend the attacks on the Defense of Marriage Act,” Oppenheimer said. “A president can do that. He has the authority to decide he doesn’t want his attorney general doing that.”

The downside

There are downsides to making changes without the approval of Congress, Oppenheimer said. Passing legislation bestows an aura of legitimacy. The next president may want to reverse Obama’s legacy and undo some of his administration’s work, which would be much harder to do if it were passed into law.

The trend is making the executive branch more powerful and sapping the strength of Congress, Oppenheimer said. Some scholars who keep watch on the government fear that the power of the executive branch could grow too much.

“People who are concerned about governing may believe that the president or the executive branch is getting too powerful,” he said. “It may be all right when your candidate is in office controlling the presidency, but you don’t like it a lot when the other side is in office.”

Also, some observers believe input from Congress can be helpful.

“When Congress is a reasonable partner in this process, sometimes it improves on the policy proposals from the executive branch and makes the legislation better,” Oppenheimer said.