On John Boehner and Agenda-Setting

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.

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About J@m3z Aitch

J@m3z Aitch is a two-bit college professor who'd rather be canoeing.
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7 Responses to On John Boehner and Agenda-Setting

  1. D.A. Ridgely says:

    Wilson has much to answer for, little of which is good. If there’s a just God, he’s answering for it now in a very warm place.

  2. James Hanley says:

    DAR, you have my whole-hearted agreement. He’s very popular among American political scientists, I suppose because most of them are, like him, in favor of parliamentary systems and global IGOs. But I just can’t like or approve of him.

  3. Kolohe says:

    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

    Furthering your point I think: the defense being presented around the blogosphere of Nancy Pelosi, in support of her standing on as minority leader, and even elevation of her as “the second-best speaker of the past 100 years according to ‘historians and nonpartisan political observers.'” all revolves around the assertion that (soon to be former) Speaker Pelosi did her part of the job, but was failed by (pick one or more of the following) the Senate, Obama, Blue Dogs, etc.

  4. Michael Heath says:

    Kolohe:

    Furthering your point I think: the defense being presented around the blogosphere of Nancy Pelosi, in support of her standing on as minority leader, and even elevation of her as “the second-best speaker of the past 100 years according to ‘historians and nonpartisan political observers.’” all revolves around the assertion that (soon to be former) Speaker Pelosi did her part of the job, but was failed by (pick one or more of the following) the Senate, Obama, Blue Dogs, etc.

    I think Pelosi’s place in history will be one of the more interesting topics debated for many years. Her public approach to governance is the exact approach I find distasteful. Her public pronouncements reveals her to be an illiterate when it comes to science, history, and economics; though her Republican opponents reveal they’re even more deficient.

    However I am incredibly impressed with her both her legislative accomplishments and the legislated passed in the House that was stopped in the Senate. This perspective is held humbly and tenuously given the history of this time has yet to be written with some much-needed hindsight. However I found what did pass the House to be both pragmatic and centrist, contra to her own utopian liberal tendencies. She had strong committee chairs who developed legislation based on what functional experts described and prescribed coupled to the pragmatism needed to pass the Senate, e.g., delay of punitive measures on coal companies and their customers as cap and trade was implemented. I found what the Senate had to consider from the House was meritorious where comprise in the Senate worsened the end-product rather than enhanced it – primarily due to conservative and GOP obstructionnism. When it comes to who to blame, I think its critical to first establish was passed, which was a lot since 2007, perhaps an historic amount though far more unprecendented. For what didn’t pass I thought should have (climate bill, a method to decrease healthcare costs), I blame conservatives, including those in her own party, e.g., Evan Bayh, Blanche Lincoln, Ben Nelson, and Joseph Liebermann.

    Every one of these senators who filibustered their own caucus were all perfectly incapable of providing empirical-based cogent arguments justifying their opposition to their party’s legislation. They instead argued conservative talking points which wilt under even the mildest scrutiny (e.g., Liberman’s budgetary objections to the public option). So I blame conservatism American-style and its rejection of reality-based arguments for a failure to pass critical legislation and for not enhancing what the House presented to the Senate.

    One would hope that in a negotiation the minority would join by increasing the quality of that which is debated, instead they mostly diluted the impact or obstructed it completely. For example, while the House passed the cap-and-trade, it would have been great to see the Senate commit itself to ending rent-seeking and taxpayer-funded externalities by fossil-fuel companies, along with debating alternative methods to end such externalities – like fee-and-dividend. Instead conservatives deny reality by claiming “cap and trade” is “cap and tax” as if no such rent-seeking, externalities, and warming is occurring.

    Boehner and the GOP will go down as critical components regarding the failure of America to recover from fundamental economic deficiencies that began decades ago and failed the world as it denies the reality of global warming. They scare the hell out of me.

    FWIW – I prefer fee-and-dividend over ‘cap and trade’ while recognizing the efficacy of cap and trade if competently executed. I happen to think the Friedman-inspired fee-and-dividend method would reduce greenhouse gas emissions faster than cap-and-trade which limits decreases while also being more consumer-friendly. Especially since we’ve already went past the point where we can avoid punitively high costs for procrastinating where that rate will now increasingly go up.

  5. James Hanley says:

    Michael,

    I’m not certain that Pelosi’s liberalism is that deep. She certainly has to play very liberal to represent San Francisco, but she’s from a very wealthy old money Italian family, and I knew folks in San Francisco who claimed she was personally somewhat reactionary–which might explain some of her illiteracy on science, etc.

  6. Michael Heath says:

    James,

    When I hear that the DofI provides an argument as Pelosi claimed that access to government funded healthcare is a right; I think – ‘liberal’, in fact ‘FDR liberal’. An alternative explanation of how she comes to such a defective argument goes back to my claim of her being historically illiterate. Perhaps she instead was passed that argument from a liberal and since it reinforced her position, she used it; which makes her little better than Sarah Palin if true – at least on this matter.

    Speaker Pelosi’s Wikipedia page has her as at least a mainstream liberal; but again, the results of the House Committees were far more centrist and pragmatic than what I expect out of overly utopian liberals.

    I am in no way a student of Pelosi beyond her machinations as Speaker, so I present this humbly.

  7. James Hanley says:

    Michael,

    My comments on her were humbly submitted, also, as a possible explanation, not one I’m certain of. I haven’t followed her too closely. I think the DofI thing could just be a “I’ll grab anything I can to justify what I’m trying to do and…hey, look, everyone love the Declaration of Independence!”

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