3

Yesterday the Republican-led US House of Representatives passed a bill to raise the debt ceiling, but it includes many spending cutbacks that are objectionable to Democrats. The Democrat-led Senate is not expected to pass the bill (and even if they did, Biden has said he would veto it), so there's a stalemate.

Biden is expected to negotiate with the Republicans to get this resolved. How did this become the President's duty? I don't think there's anything in the Constitution that puts the Executive Branch in the path of passing legislation, they're just supposed to implement what the Legislative Branch passed. Shouldn't the Speaker of the House and the Senate Majority Leader be spearheading this negotiation?

On a broader level, we often speak of the President's legislative agenda. Why does POTUS set the agenda in the first place?

23
  • 1
    Being "encouraged" to take some action does not imply that it is your duty to do so. The President can also present an agenda but that does not mean that either house of Congress needs to actually follow it. But, since it comes from an office that presumably has some popular clout, it may be wise to consider (or at least appear to consider) parts of it.
    – doneal24
    Apr 27, 2023 at 18:38
  • 2
    There's 2 different questions here. Firstly, about presidents with legislative agendas (and what that means), and second about presidents resolving conflicts in congress.
    – Stuart F
    Apr 27, 2023 at 18:48
  • 1
    Why can't it be him? When it comes to approving the budget there is 1 person on the executive side that needs to agree or 218 in the house and 51(50) in the senate. In order to get around the veto it would be 290 in the house and 67 in the senate. From a logistical standpoint it seems like he is in the best position to lead these negotiations especially since he can help guide the Democrats votes.
    – Joe W
    Apr 27, 2023 at 21:23
  • 2
    Note that "Biden is expected to negotiate with the Republicans" is another way of saying "The Republicans are expected to negotiate with Biden" Apr 28, 2023 at 15:45
  • 3
    Who else do you expect to resolve the conflict? Biden is in a good place to lead the negations with all involved parties as it is clear that they can't do it themselves. Trying to hire a third party will be no good either as they will pick someone who agrees with them in the end Biden is the one who will either sign or veto the budget.
    – Joe W
    Apr 28, 2023 at 18:57

4 Answers 4

8

The President Has To Deal Directly With The Consequences On Enacted Legislation

In General

The President's job, beyond partisan legislative priorities, is to make the vast federal bureaucracy function and to carry out the laws on the books.

As the person who has to deal with whatever Congress has wrought, at a minimum a President's administration will almost always want to take an active part in negotiations over any law that the executive branch will have to play a material role in administering.

This is because even slight details and fine print can dramatically change how difficult or easy it is to administer a law.

Debt Ceiling Legislation Is Particularly Problematic

A debt ceiling bill is particularly problematic in this regard.

Even if the House passed debt-ceiling bill did not specifically target the President's recently enacted legislative accomplishments, the President would still have a strong interest in intervening to secure a solution because a debt-ceiling bill, by its very nature, conflicts with legislation from appropriations bills already enacted by Congress in every instance where it matters at all.

When an appropriations bill is passed, Congress has authorized the President to implement that bill by entering into commitments to spend federal funds for particular purposes, and the President, if he is trying to "faithfully execute the law" has begun to implement those bills.

A debt ceiling bill essentially seeks to roll back existing appropriations bills upon which commitments have already been entered into by the President to spend funds in furtherance of carrying out the task of spending funds appropriated by Congress for particular purposes.

While a President is only rarely required to spend all funds that an appropriations bill authorizes the President to spend, any debt ceiling bill places a President in a tough position when trying to run the federal government. So a President of any party has a strong incentive to play an active role in negotiating the terms of, and marshaling lobbying on behalf of the administration regarding, any debt ceiling bill.

There Is Some Hotly Contested Legislation That A President Can Choose To Ignore

There are hotly contested bills about which the President could, if so inclined, take a back seat in the legislative process, because they have little impact on the day to day administration of the federal government.

For example, a reform of the substantive terms of the federal Junk Fax law, or federal laws governing jurisdiction over which state's courts get to decide child custody cases, which are entirely administered by state rather than federal courts, are matters that the President could punt upon, if so inclined.

But bills with minimal implementation concerns are the exception, more than they are the rule.

The President Has The Most Power Of Any Participant In The Legislative Process And With Power Comes Moral Responsibility

President's Care About Policy And The President Is The Most Powerful Legislative Process Participant

Of course, Presidents, in addition to being charged with implementing almost all Congressional enacted law, is also a leader of the President's party who ran on policy positions.

The President's veto power means that no legislation can be passed if it is opposed by the President and either of the two major political parties or by a significant bipartisan minority even if supported by majorities in both parties, which gives the President far more negotiation clout than anyone else in the legislative process. So, of course, Presidents are not going to want to let that power go to waste.

And, any time someone has the power to influence important decisions impacting the fate of the country, a moral responsibility to do so in a wise and proper manner comes with that power.

The Founders Could Have Written A Constitution Where The President Was Less Powerful

If the Founders had wanted a constitution in which the President simply did what he was told, they wouldn't have given him the veto power and would have had a President elected by the U.S. House, and would have positioned the Senate as the source of any veto-type power while denying it the power to initiate all or most kinds of legislation (which is essentially how bicameral parliamentary systems work).

Another common modern solution is to grant almost all power to the legislatively elected Prime Minister with a President serving only the role of a symbolic head of state similar to the modern U.K. monarch. But, in 1789, the notion of a monarch or a monarch-substitute with only symbolic power was merely a pipe dream of political philosophers and wasn't nearly as obvious a solution as it was to later constitution drafters in the era in which the British monarch had ceded all but symbolic power.

Most of the Founders assumed that the balance of power would be more strongly in favor of Congress and less strongly in favor of the President. So, they tried to weaken Congress vis-a-vis the President (while weakening the Presidency relative to the formal but evolving and declining power of the monarch) and got a more powerful Presidency than they bargained for.

There Are Good Reasons That The Founders Failed To Accurately Predict How Their Constitution Would Work In Practice

The Founders can be forgiven for their misreading of how their rules would play out.

The Founders overestimated the strength of Congress relative to the President, in part, because their primary reference point was the U.K. constitutional monarchy at a moment in U.K. history prior to true parliamentary supremacy and before it became a de facto unicameral majority rule system, in which neither the monarch nor the House of Lords had much power.

The decline of the direct powers of the monarchy in Britain to what became mostly a symbolic role took place mostly after 1789:

From 1811 to 1820, George III suffered a severe bout of what is now believed to be porphyria, an illness rendering him incapable of ruling. His son, the future George IV, ruled in his stead as Prince Regent. During the Regency and his own reign, the power of the monarchy declined, and by the time of his successor, William IV, the monarch was no longer able to effectively interfere with parliamentary power. In 1834, William dismissed the Whig Prime Minister, William Lamb, 2nd Viscount Melbourne, and appointed a Tory, Sir Robert Peel. In the ensuing elections, however, Peel lost. The king had no choice but to recall Lord Melbourne. During William IV's reign, the Reform Act 1832, which reformed parliamentary representation, was passed. Together with others passed later in the century, the Act led to an expansion of the electoral franchise and the rise of the House of Commons as the most important branch of Parliament. The final transition to a constitutional monarchy was made during the long reign of William IV's successor, Victoria.

Similarly, the inferior status of the House of Lords was formally institutionalized in the Parliament Act of 1911 and 1949.

There were precious few examples of previous attempts to create anything all that similar to the kind of political structure that they created in 1789.

They also didn't fully foresee the impact of the end of the unifying impact of the revolutionary war, the the impact of having someone other the unifying revolutionary figure of President Washington in the Presidency when trying to see how politics would play out later on.

While they certainly foresaw that there would be factions that any political system would have to manage, they naively overestimated the extent to which deliberation and reason and apolitical good will on the part of politicians would mitigate partisan conflicts between two major parties at a time. It turns out the partisanship is more powerful, and independent reasoned deliberation is less powerful, in the political system that they created (as it evolved over time) than they predicted that it would be.

And, certainly, no one in 1789 had any inkling that their constitution would still be mostly in place in 2023 (234 years later) with 50 states and 336 million people ruled by it in a nation extending from deep into the Pacific Ocean to the Atlantic Ocean's Coast and the Caribbean sea, with a near universal franchise, and an economy primarily rooted in vigorous interstate and international commerce with modern 21st century technology. Today, there are more federal employees alone than there were people in the U.S. in 1789.

By comparison, consider what North America looked like politically, or what democratic politics more generally, looked like at a global level, in 1565 (234 years before the U.S. Constitution was adopted).

enter image description here

A map of the Western Hemisphere in 1562

(Source for map)

15
  • 1
    @Barmar "How does something like ObamaCare fit into this idea?" The President is simultaneously wearing the good policy hat (which immense power in the legislative process and a role as leader of the President's party facilitates), and the "person who has to deal with what gets enacted" hat (which arguably should have been more prominent).
    – ohwilleke
    Apr 27, 2023 at 20:19
  • 2
    @RickSmith Fair point. But it is in conflict with the appropriations bills, almost by definition.
    – ohwilleke
    Apr 27, 2023 at 22:14
  • 1
    @user253751 I suppose, but what does that have to do with the process of getting it approved?
    – Barmar
    Apr 28, 2023 at 15:49
  • 1
    @user253751 RomneyCare didn't get passed by Congress, so I don't understand why you brought it up. ObamaCare was inspired by RomneyCare, but they're hardly identical, especially after all the negotiation with Congress to get it passed.
    – Barmar
    Apr 28, 2023 at 15:57
  • 1
    @user541686 Is there specific legislation requiring a referendum to abolish the UK monarchy? Parliamentary supremacy is generally regarded as a key principle for UK government (unlike, say, Australia where there is a constitution that specifically says a referendum is required to modify the constitution). But I think it's more that it would lead to a crisis that it's hard to see resolving in favour of the monarchy. If a popular Parliament willed away the need for Royal Assent, the monarch would need police, courts and/or military to enforce their power, which probably wouldn't happen.
    – Ben
    Apr 30, 2023 at 6:37
5

The President does have a role in legislation because of the veto power.

If Congress wants to pass a bill that the President also agrees with, they need only a simple majority in each house. (I know the filibuster is a thing, but that is not in the Constitution.)

If Congress wants to pass a bill that the President does not agree with, they need a two-thirds majority in each house, which is a lot harder.

All of this means is that Congress does have to negotiate with the President too if they want to get things done. The President and his party also want to get reelected, for which it is helpful to be seen as trying to get things done.

5
  • This argues for negotiation between Congress and the President when they disagree with each other. But the question is about the President leading negotiations among the members of Congress.
    – Barmar
    Apr 27, 2023 at 20:01
  • @Barmar The thing is, there is no rule saying who can or cannot lead any negotiations. So why should it not be the President? That is the one constant who definitely has to agree with the result if there is no two-thirds majority.
    – wonderbear
    Apr 27, 2023 at 20:31
  • There seems to be an "unwritten rule" that POTUS does this, at least for anything of major importance.
    – Barmar
    Apr 27, 2023 at 20:34
  • 3
    @Barmar Any functioning constitutional system is accompanied by a whole host of unwritten rules. The idea is that a constitution describes a minimal set of rules; but there are always gaps that need to be filled in in order to make it work. That's normal. Apr 28, 2023 at 8:33
  • @Barmar While the US Presidential system is quite different to the parliamentary system of democracy, they do have some similarities too. One of it is that the government implements the poll promises of the party and the President. In party based democracies, political parties with a majority also play a huge role in setting the agenda for the government. Ultimately it is up to the President who runs the govt. to deliver on all the promises made. So the President has to necessarily be involved in all agenda negotiations, whether it be within the party or with other parties in the legislature.
    – sfxedit
    Apr 28, 2023 at 20:08
5

I don't think there's anything in the Constitution that puts the Executive Branch in the path of passing legislation, they're just supposed to implement what the Legislative Branch passed. [...] On a broader level, we often speak of the President's legislative agenda. Why does POTUS set the agenda in the first place?

That ship has sailed since the Harding presidency, when the presidency started to submit budget proposals, following the Budget and Accounting Act of 1921. In some sense, the writing had been on the wall even earlier, when Teddy Roosevelt started to issue a lot of Executive Orders. There were in fact a lot of debates back then whether the US should have such a "European" style executive. The debates on who should submit the budged proposal went on for ten years [prior] at least, starting with Taft's 1912 "The Need for a National Budget".

Biden has said he would veto it, so there's a stalemate.

That's actually in the Constitution: "article I; section 7".

According to one paper Taft was also the first president to send a draft legislative proposal [of any kind] to Congress. FDR later turbocharged this practice, with a spate of legislation proposals in his first 100 days. Later on LBJ and even Reagan tried to match up to that, in a sense. Personally, I suspect that it was combination factors that led to these developments, but surely means of mass addressing the public like radio and later TV made presidential campaigns more filled with promises of a legislative nature. And since the Constitution doesn't prohibit the president from sending such drafts, coupled with the rise of parties (which in fact was much older thing, despite the Founders' intent--see Andrew Jackson)...

Speaking of the lack of prohibitions, TR even tried to be some kind of arbiter or negotiator in chief in labor disputes (like between coal miners and owners), something that wasn't quite that often repeated since.

James Buchanan, TR wrote in his Autobiography in 1913, "took the . . . narrowly legalistic view that the President is the servant of Congress rather than of the people, and can do nothing . . . unless the Constitution explicitly commands the action".

But TR took the view that it was

"not only his right but his duty to do anything that the needs of the nation demanded unless such action was forbidden by the Constitution or by the laws."

As 538 puts it

Scholars don’t agree on exactly when or why this changed, but travel and telecommunications certainly helped presidential candidates — and presidents once in office — directly build support in the electorate without going through the parties. What’s more, reforms to the primary system in the early 1970s gave voters more influence over the nomination process. Together, these changes did a lot to make presidents the faces of their parties.

And by "don’t agree on exactly when" they mean/link a couple of books one which seems to identify FDR as the point of change and another which points to Woodrow Wilson's time. The former of these books (despite being written in 1993) even argues that the importance of parties has declined in favor of the presiden as an individual, with his own agenda.

And although you protest this point, generally speaking legislative initiative and the power to block/veto legislation "at the other end" are seen by some as two sides of the same coin:

In pure presidential systems, presidents may exert substantial influence over the legislative agenda due to institutional prerogatives conferring a first-mover advantage (e.g. the exclusive right to initiate bills in key areas) and reactive powers that allow them to prevent the enactment of undesired policies (veto powers).

It is, of course, rather more difficult to campaign on promises just to veto [some] stuff.

8
  • I know the veto is in the Constitution. I don't consider that to make him part of the legislative process. It's a special case, analogous to the role of pardons in the judicial process.
    – Barmar
    Apr 27, 2023 at 19:58
  • 2
    @Barmar The signature or veto requirement is absolutely part of the legislative process. Vetos have been used by every President, even those with legislative majorities. Maybe one in 100,000 criminal convictions is pardoned, maybe single digit percentages of legislation is vetoed and determining if the President will veto or not is part of the legislative negotiations in all but the most anodyne legislation like naming a post office.
    – ohwilleke
    Apr 28, 2023 at 16:58
  • I'm not an idiot, I know that it's a step in the process. But that doesn't make it POTUS's job to design the legislation, it's just a final ratification step. The vast majority of the time it's just a rubber stamp.
    – Barmar
    Apr 28, 2023 at 17:00
  • 2
    @Barmar: This rubber stamp phenomenon is a symptom of a combination of party politics and the use of the veto as a threat(as it is currently being used), rather than a legal or congressional rule). I.e. it's rubber stamped because it either does something the President wants (enough to allow the rest to pass), or its the result of negotiation to exchange, or the bill has enough support to override the veto. Also note that, per the Constitution, spending bills like this must originate in the House, not the Senate.
    – sharur
    Apr 28, 2023 at 19:24
  • @Barmar: Regarding the third point: There might be enough swing in the Senate to get to a majority, but almost certainly not to get to a two thirds majority. (Noting that Senators, or House Representatives, or even Presidents for that matter, are not legally bound to vote/act with their parties, which the Founders were notionally against, despite founding them (See Washington's Farewell Address). The President wants a debt ceiling raise (or more accurately, wants to avoid default)...the negotiation is essentially haggling over the "price" of the raise.
    – sharur
    Apr 28, 2023 at 19:28
1

You are simply operating on a false presupposition. The President is given the Constitutional power to veto anything that comes through Congress. Overriding his veto is very difficult (though not impossible). Imagine if there was a member of Congress whose vote counted for FIVE votes instead of just one. That would be a powerful member who people might look to to set the agenda, right? Well, the President is more powerful than that.

If that's not clear: the point is that, yes, it was intended for the President to have power in the legislative branch in addition to being the head of the Executive branch.

The President also has the power to appoint Judges. I've heard it said in school and elsewhere that "the President isn't really as powerful as people think". That's pure and utter nonsense. The office of the President of the United States is absolutely, and without question, the most powerful office on earth.

Having said that, I wouldn't necessarily say the President himself is the most powerful person as he is often influenced and even controlled by other forces (whether it be nefarious forces, or simply the will of the people that persuades him).

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .