15

In a comment in an answer about a canceled vote:

Other than belittling them on Twitter, what exactly do they have to fear from Trump's "wrath?" – Andy yesterday [3-26-17]

What official and unofficial recourse does a president have against members of his party? And how effective are they?

  • Ask the former Ohio GOP party chair. – PoloHoleSet Mar 27 '17 at 21:12
24

Officially Trump himself can do little to penalize his opponents in Congress. If the President had such powers there would be nothing to stop him from using them against the opposition members (in this case the Democrats).

Unofficially though the president, especially Trump, is a very influential man. He can sway public opinion 'just with his tweets'. If you're a congressman from a small congressional district that Trump won by a large margin, it would be pretty devastating if Trump tweeted 'Don't vote for that guy, he voted against my healthcare bill!'. Trump has already threatened to primary any congressmen who dissent from his bill. He is also a member of the GOP leadership and thus also has sway to say where campaign spending goes.

  • 4
    It's a sad commentary on the state of politics that Twitter now appears to be one of its principal tools. – Robert Harvey Mar 27 '17 at 21:16
  • 8
    @RobertHarvey Why, exactly? If the idea is that government is supposed to be responsive to the people, seems to me that open lines of communication without nondisinterested gatekeepers are a Good Thing, even if a bit gauche for the bluebloods. – chrylis -on strike- Mar 27 '17 at 22:18
  • 16
    @chrylis: Because Twitter is the embodiment of sound bites. It represents everything that is wrong with how we communicate today. It says "Take any attempt at meaningful discourse, and force it into 140 characters or less." It says "Favor attention-seeking, complaining and hyperbole over discussion of relevant issues and pertinent facts." – Robert Harvey Mar 27 '17 at 22:48
  • 16
    @chrylis: To prove my point, it would have taken three tweets to communicate the above response. – Robert Harvey Mar 27 '17 at 22:52
  • 3
    @JDoe: The world is awash in mostly useless information. It's not brevity that's the problem; it's quality, and I could count on one hand the number of genuinely high-quality tweets I've seen. – Robert Harvey Mar 27 '17 at 22:58
5
  • Power by Association: A president meets and makes deals with many other powerful people, some of whom may be in a better position to "punish" someone than the president is.
  • PR power: When a president says something, many people hear it. A president has a strong (but not infinite) power to attract or divert public attention from a topic.
  • Veto power: The threat of stopping legislation that's relevant to a member of congress is sometimes relevant. Additionally, a president can hint at what changes a bill needs so it doesn't get vetoed, thus influencing legislation.

This particular president also has access to relevant amounts of personal money, and controls a large business (albeit at least one source on twitter says he doesn't), which is yet another form of power.

There are some minor powers too, which can be used as bargaining chips for the previously mentioned Power by Association.

  • 2
    Veto power isn't a power over an individual though, its a power against congress in general. It wouldn't be very effective in this case. – David Grinberg Mar 27 '17 at 17:27
  • 4
    @DavidGrinberg It's direct usefulness depends on the circumstances. Another way is to use it as a bargaining chip to get someone else (e.g. senior party leadership) to act. – Peter Mar 27 '17 at 18:28
1

In my opinion, this is a mostly empty threat. The President has virtually no official power over members of Congress. Article I, Section 5 of the US Constitution gives the power to discipline members to the Congress itself. Section 6 gives members of Congress a wide range of protection against harassment by the executive. Short of prosecuting serious criminal charges against them (for which he'd need to have actual evidence), there isn't anything a President can do to target individual members.

Unofficially, the President has more options. The biggest lever that a President has is that normally he is the head of his party. That means he can have a great deal of influence over the allocation of party resources. Many members of Congress, particularly members without much seniority or those from small districts, rely on support from the party coffers for their reelection efforts. Threatening to withhold that support, usually during the primary election, can be an effective way of motivating members to fall in line. However, this particular President's relationship to the Republican party is more distant than usual. He will likely have trouble persuading party leadership to go along with such sanctions, especially because party leaders are all too aware that these kinds of internecine fights can backfire, possibly resulting in the party losing the seat.

Alternatively, the President could try to back a primary challenger himself, perhaps by actively campaigning on their behalf. This might be an option for targeting a single, particularly hated, foe in Congress (it wouldn't surprise me to see him target the Speaker this way), but it would be hard to do this in a few dozen races around the country. Late-night tweet storms notwithstanding, winning a primary election against a better funded, better organized opponent requires a sustained effort, and each race requires a message tuned to its voters. Keeping that up for months on end in more than a couple of races would paralyze the administration. The President might be able to get grassroots organizations to do the heavy lifting for him, but it's not clear that these members' decision was especially unpopular among their constituents, so rallying grassroots opposition will be harder than it was in past years, when merely being seen as cooperating with President Obama was seen as a betrayal.

If neither of these avenues is likely to work, then the President is left without much recourse beyond slagging off House members off on Twitter. I don't think most of them are too worried about that. To be in Congress you have to develop a pretty thick skin because there is always someone mad at you. You also have to learn to deal with hecklers because, again, there are always some that show up. (See, for example, Senator Lindsey Graham's performance at one of his recent town halls.) Twitter attacks aren't likely to worry members of Congress unless it looks like there is a real chance that they will mobilize a public backlash. Since most of the Republicans who defected on this vote did so precisely because they had a better sense of where the public stood on this bill than the Administration or the House leadership did, that doesn't seem too likely.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy