On my post about right-wingers, my brother commented on John Boehner’s “The President sets the agenda” nonsense.” I’d like to add a correction, clarification, and agreement.
Boehner’s comment is not entirely nonsense. Woodrow Wilson’s famous doctoral dissertation (albeit famous only after he became president) was a condemnation of congressional government as effectively creating a leaderless state. Someone has to set the agenda, and he argued that the president was the only one institutionally situated to do it, both because he was a sole actor in his position in a way that no-one in Congress is, and because he was the only person who was an elected representative of the whole country; the only person whose electorate was congruent with the whole American public.
And presidents are the most effective agenda-setters in the U.S. government. They are a sort of executive director of Congress. And agenda-setting is a tremendously important sort of political power.
That said, Boehner’s comment is entirely self-serving. Congressmembers do compete with the president to set the agenda; he just has particular advantages none of them have. They love it when the president selects their issue to be one of his, because that more than doubles the odds that their preferred agenda will be favored, but if he doesn’t choose theirs, they don’t suddenly quit trying.
And it’s particularly self-serving for Boehner to say that immediately following the election because the Republican candidates ran on a platform of what agenda they would set. Now Boehner’s sending the message, “Don’t expect us to actually accomplish that or to even give it the old college try. Instead, we’re just going to sit back and do jack shit for two years except blame the president.”
I’m pretty sure that’s what my brother meant in his comment, and I agree. Boehner knows his party can’t pursue an effective agenda while controlling only one half of half the political branches.
And he may be reluctant to try to get presidential buy-in to achieve his goals lest the president get credit. Republicans learned that lesson with welfare reform in 1996. They got the plan they wanted, but Bill Clinton got the credit. Boehner and his fellow experienced Republicans (unlike the freshman yahoos elected this week*) might be willing to play a waiting game for two years, hoping they can win the presidency and the Senate in two years.
* For an introduction into how clueless freshman lawmakers could be, see Richard Fenno’s Learning to Govern: An Institutional View of the 104th Congress, a quick, entertaining, and enlightening read. He note how the big 1994 Republican freshman class in the House celebrated madly when they passed elements of the Contract with America, apparently not realizing that they had only accomplished the easiest part of the job, as they were working in the chamber where the minority has no power, and they had achieved nothing like a veto-proof majority. Ultimately only one portion of one item in the contract was ever passed into law. One older Republican House member commented that he wished some of the yahoos had ever taken a civics course.