Can Obama and the Republican Congress get anything done together?

Earlier this week this week, we looked at the history of divided government and how the current split in power between the Democratic White House and a Republican majority house and senate is the new normal. What follows are interviews with Peter Baker, a reporter from the New York Times who has covered both the Obama, Bush and Clinton White Houses, American University political science professor James Thurber, and longtime congressional watcher Thomas Mann, a fellow at the Brookings Institution.

Is party splitting between Congress and the White House the new normal? Will all future presidents have to learn to compromise with a Congress controlled by politicians who do not share their views? How will President Obama, Mitch McConnell and John Boehner handle this?

Peter Baker, New York Times: In general, I think we should be careful about assuming that the current state of affairs will be the state of affairs we have down the road because we’ve seen a lot of change in the last decade. But, having said that, there’s no question that we’re in the age of polarization, and that president is going to have to get used to working with opposition congresses.

James Thurber, American University poli-sci professor: It’s the new normal. We’ve had Democrats and Republicans that have held presidency since 1980. About half the time, they split it. And much of that time, we’re split between the two parties in the House and the Senate. The Senate majority party changed hands seven times, the Democrats nine times, and with Republicans House majority shifted three times.

Thomas Mann, Brookings Institution fellow: There are not many signs suggesting that the basic political dynamic between the parties and branches will change from the experience of the last four years, since the 2010 elections. When McConnell and Boehner speak of governing and cooperation, they’re mainly speaking tactically about not shutting down government or threatening public default.

How often did this happen in the past? Why has it become increasingly more frequent?

Mann: It is unusual, and it flows from two realities. One is that the parties have become more sorted by ideology. The second is the level of competitiveness between both parties. There’s no dominant party in our system now and in the White House and especially in majorities in the House and Senate. That means that the strategies in Congress are geared less toward in acting law than toward improving one’s political prospects or the party in the next election to either hold or regain majority control.

Thurber: It’s become more frequent because of the competitiveness of the Senate, in particular. This year, there were many Democrats that were up in competitive districts. All of them lost actually, and it will be flipped the next time. It would be 24 Republicans that are up. That’s not the issue. The issue is the competitiveness of the parties in the Senate. That makes it difficult to govern because [Senate Minority Leader Harry] Reid tried to cover some of the Democrats on tough issues, didn’t bring him up and McConnell maybe doing the same thing. He doesn’t want them to lose and, so, the situation is such that it creates a certain amount of gridlock.

Baker: I think what we’re seeing now is a nation built in institutional friction that’s exacerbated and accelerated by the advent of social media and by the 24/7 pace of the news environment. So it takes all of the most divisive elements in the political system, which have always been there, and makes them a more dominant feature of them. It makes it harder for people to reach across the aisle when any possible divergence from the party line instantly generates Twitter and Facebook traffic.

How have past presidents dealt with having their party in the minority in Congress?

Baker: Well, it’s been mixed. Sometimes, they try confrontation. Certainly, Harry Truman did with the Republican Congress he faced. Sometimes, they do a Bill Clinton; there was this kind of triangulation where you sort of privy yourself between the parties and try to find a middle ground. Ronald Reagan sort of forged a coalition between conservative Democrats and his Republicans, when he didn’t have the House on his side. And so, it just depends on the moment and the president. In this case, you’ve seen a president who’s been more willing and more eager to confront Congress in the last couple of years. He doesn’t think Congress is going to respond, and he doesn’t take it seriously anymore.

Thurber: They had to compromise, and they had to reach to and work with the other party. Find areas where they agreed within. [Presidents] had to go along with what the Congress wanted sometimes. In the end, what the Congress wants, when they’ve got the majority, is a major power. But remember, from the founding to present … the president wins on vetoes 97 percent of the time. So, the threat of a veto on Keystone is a serious threat. He probably will win because you need 67 votes to overcome the veto.

Mann: If you go back to Eisenhower, who had brief periods of Republican control but also substantial minority situation in the Congress, [Eisenhower] was reflecting an older tradition of the Republican Party of Abraham Lincoln … with Reagan coming in, you’ve found initially he had a Republican Senate, which helped him a lot. And he was able to move on tax and spending legislation initially by gaining support of a number of southern conservative Democrats. There was enough diversity to kind of pick off some of those members. But as time went on and deficits got larger, Reagan actually adapted to that situation. What we haven’t had much experience is Democratic presidents working with Republican Congresses.

Does a power split always mean that Congress will be less productive? How have past presidents/members shown that partisan divide can be worked around?

Baker: I do think a partisan divide doesn’t mean that there won’t be stuff that can get done. In fact, usually the most lasting products of a Congress are things that come out of compromise between the two parties. If you have a legislation that passes that’s only supported by one party, you sort of guarantee that for years to come, it will become a source of controversy. If, for instance, Obama and the Republican Congress end up getting together on some issues like trade or the tax code, then if they actually succeed, then that means those will be embedded into the policy a lot stronger because there won’t be sort of a perpetual opposition.

Thurber: Generally, when we have divided party government, less gets done. Fewer bills get passed. There are exceptions like when we have a threat to the United States, like 9/11. The way to work around it is to ignore [Congress] and do executive orders and actions within the executive branch that are legal. To go above them, to go to the American public to get them to persuade Congress to do certain things and also to compromise to build coalitions with them. And I think the Republicans would like to do that. They want to show that they can get things done so they’re going to push pieces of legislation where they think they can find common ground. One of them being foreign trade.

Mann: I don’t see the conditions right in the nature of the parties, in the level of competitiveness for control in the policy environment at all. For example, back then you could get an immigration passed; and Reagan was for it and prominent Republicans in Congress were for it. Now, even Marco Rubio, who worked hard to get a bill pass the Senate, has tried to distance himself from it. So there’s no market for it. Obama felt obliged to move ahead on his own, and no one believes … Republicans would agree to a comprehensive reform that would deal.

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