On Presidential Power (and More Musings on our System)

Presidents are not a powerful as they seem (and a return to the "are things broken?" theme).

Partially apropos of my post from the other day (Veto Players and Governance) and as an attempt to continue to explore how our government actually works, I thought the following quote from an article by political scientist George Tsebelis* was worth highlighting.  Specifically, I think it is worth considering as we try to understand the actual dynamic between the executive and legislative branches of our system (with the most proximate inspiration being the debt ceiling negotiations between the president and the congress):

Textbooks speak about the powers of the president to set the agenda in public debates, and the very term “presidential system” suggests that the president is very powerful. The terminology in both cases is confusing. I am speaking about a very precise function of Congress, that it elaborates legislation, it can modify it at will, and present the president with a fait accomplis, i.e., having a bill come out of a conference committee and then approved by both chambers. I am not speaking about the attention the media are paying to presidential initiatives. An example may drive the point home. After Hillary Clinton presented her draft of healthcare legislation (on behalf of her husband) the draft of the bill was passed to different congressional committees, and the changes contemplated there were so numerous and contradictory that the whole project was abandoned.  This indicates that after two years of drafting legislation, once the project reached Congress there effectively was no draft. As for the argument that a “presidential system” means the president has greater power, presidents do have significant powers in terms of foreign policy, commanding the armed forces, and issuing executive orders, but the fact that they are always asking for line item veto power indicates that their legislative influence is significantly lower than Congress’s (2000:457).

Emphasis mine.

Forget for a moment the question of what kinds of arguments help one’s preferred party, but instead let’s thing about how the system actually works.   There is a reason why any plan coming out of negotiations with the White House (any White House) is likely to be vague (or, to quote an OTB commenter the other day, “nothing but words”) and it is because a)  no president has the power to directly submit legislation (but must have a proxy within the legislature do it for them, and b) even if a given president can get a piece of draft legislation introduced, control over the contents of said legislation is out of the hands of that president.  Once in congress, presidents lose control over legislation.  Yes, they can threaten vetoes.  Yes, they can make speeches.  But the actual power to determine what the congress will actually vote on belongs to the members of congress, not to the president.

Nevertheless, we (the public and the media) focus very heavily on the president.  And the main reason we do so is because it is easier than trying to understand congress.  Plus, we all get to vote for president, but don’t get to vote for the whole congress.

To put this in specific recent terms, if there was going to be a “Grand Bargain” over spending negotiated between the president and the congress, the key actor in the room was the Speaker of the House who had to be able to go back to another key actor, his caucus in the House, with an acceptable plan.  In other words, because any deal had to pass the House first (see here), it had to be palatable to the House majority party, so no matter how powerful one thinks the president is, the president does not control these processes, Congress does (and, more specifically, factions in congress).  Presidents can try to persuade, but persuasion only goes so far.

And yes, the president is the nominal head of his party.  But what does that actually mean?  In reality, it means far less than one might think.  It is important to understand that being the “head of the party” is, as most textbooks put it, a “role” not a power of the president because being head of a US party does not convey actual abilities.  Leaders in US parties do not select candidates (primary voters do), they do not decide who gets to be a member of their party (the individual candidates do**), and they only partially provide funds (the lion’s share, by far, is collected by the candidate).  We have weak, uncohesive parties that are primarily candidate-driven.  So, what exactly can the “leader of the party” do?  He can choose (or choose not) to campaign for a given candidate.  That’s not exactly a superpower.  Yes, the fortunes of a president and his party in Congress are linked, but that hardly constitutes a power that the president has over his party in congress, although it can be an incentive for cooperation (although, by no means always).

Indeed, because legislators do not rely on presidents for their re-election (nor vice versa), this means that even when they share the same party affiliation they may have no incentive to cooperate with each other.  This is inherent to separation of powers (a.k.a., presidential systems).

There is also the fact that we have a tendency to discuss policy in terms of a national point of view (i.e., what’s “good” for “the country”***), but this is actually mistaken because members of congress do not represent the country as a whole, but their own discrete districts (and therefore are more likely to see the “good” in a localized fashion).  Further, a rather overwhelming number of the members of congress are in safe districts (i.e., their re-election chances are quite high).  As such, it is easy to see why we might have polls (23, in fact) that show overwhelmingly that the public favors a balanced approach (i.e., spending and taxes) to dealing with the deficit that the congress may not be predisposed to approaching the issue in such a manner.  In fact, I think a lot of the difficulties associated with proper governance is linked heavily to inadequate representation of national interests in the national legislature (as I noted at PoliBlog over a year ago).  But, as I have argued several times here at OTB of late:  the problem is not one of a broken system, but rather one that works as designed.  We constantly talk as if we want a system (and therefore policies) that address national problems, but the nature of representation in congress is geared towards more parochial interests.  This is why I increasing think that “fixing” a “broken” system is not the issue, but rather thinking about reforming (i.e., changing in a new way) the system that we have.****  Of course, such moves seem rather unlikely.


*Tsebelis is an expert on political institutions and has written extensively on the concept of veto player (including a 2002 book, Veto Players:  How Political Institutions Work).  The quote above is from Tsebelis, Geroge. 2000. “Veto Players and Institutional Analysis” Governance: An International Journal of Policy and Administration, 13, 4 (October): 441-474.

**On balance, the way that a given person decided to be a Republican or Democrat is to simply declare so.

***Scare quotes quite deliberate.

****The smallest of these changes would be nonpartisan redistricting across the board.  It borders on the criminal that state legislatures draw districts in such a way as to create large numbers of totally safe districts for given parties.  We should, as a public, demand competitive districts. A far more comprehensive reform would be to change the way we elect congress.  This post is already too long, so I will leave discussions of reform for future posts.

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Steven L. Taylor
About Steven L. Taylor
Steven L. Taylor is a Professor of Political Science and a College of Arts and Sciences Dean. His main areas of expertise include parties, elections, and the institutional design of democracies. His most recent book is the co-authored A Different Democracy: American Government in a 31-Country Perspective. He earned his Ph.D. from the University of Texas and his BA from the University of California, Irvine. He has been blogging since 2003 (originally at the now defunct Poliblog). Follow Steven on Twitter


  1. Fargus says:

    Great post. I think it hits on what’s been my biggest frustration watching critics of the President lately. They’ve said stuff like, “Obama didn’t take charge on the debt deal. Instead, he left it up to Congress.” This ignores the fact that, like you said, Obama doesn’t get to introduce anything in the legislature. They act like Obama is failing to be a leader by abdicating some power to declare laws by fiat.

  2. james says:

    @ Steven well I can still post at this site. I no longer have the comment temple on James OTB:

    Anyway there is a benefit if communications is only one way (Patton to Romel “I read your book”)

    Steven let the free speach flow.

  3. @james: ?

  4. PD Shaw says:

    History has acclaimed Presidents who have been able to enact their domestic agendas through close work with Congressional leaders. Lincoln had Charles Sumner as his proxy for enacting contentious issues involving freed slaves. LBJ essentially directed the legislative strategy behind the Civil Rights Act through Hubert Humphrey.

    OTOH, Presidents that have been stand-offish and uninvolved in the legislative process have been judged harshly. James Madison used a formal address to encourage Congress to enact a system for road improvement that he vetoed on his last day in office with harsh language directed at Congress that it was an unconstitutional subject. Jimmy Carter had similar tendencies to preach without engagement.

    I’d say the Clinton healthcare debacle is more of an example of disengagement from the legislative process. They thought omnibus healthcare legislation could not survive the thousand cuts of public discussion and the numerous interests implicated, so they drafted the bill in the executive and found a proxy to introduce the bill as an attachment to the budget reconciliation bill in order to avoid debate and tinkering. The Clintons promised to roll over Democratic leaders that didn’t play along. I’d call that nonengagment by circumvention of the legislature.

  5. Max Lybbert says:

    Professor Taylor’s post comes pretty close to stating that President Obama wasted everybody’s time by insisting on being present for negotiations.

  6. james says:

    @Steven L. Taylor: Freedom of Speech