Abusive Relationship

The Bush White House has never had a lot of respect for Congress. Vice President Dick Cheney refused to turn over key documents about who sat on his energy task force to the General Accounting Office, Congress' investigative arm. President George W. Bush claimed that his head of homeland security, Tom Ridge, didn't have to testify before Congress because Ridge was a presidential adviser, not an agency head. And lawmakers -- both Democrats and Republicans -- have complained about a lack of cooperation from the administration on issues from appropriations to national security.

The most recent -- and perhaps egregious -- example of the White House's disregard for the far end of Pennsylvania Avenue came when it helped push out incoming Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) after Lott praised Sen. Strom Thurmond's (R-S.C.) segregationist 1948 presidential campaign. Bush adviser Karl Rove didn't stop Sen. Don Nickles (R-Okla.) from announcing publicly that he wanted Lott's job. But Rove privately promoted the candidacy of Sen. Bill Frist (R-Tenn.), with whom he worked closely last fall; Frist, as chair of the National Republican Senatorial Committee (NRSC), was charged with putting the GOP back into the majority. (Frist's decision to run for the majority-leader post was especially curious considering that on Dec. 12, a full week after Lott's remarks, he said that he accepted Lott's apology and hoped others would, too. And in leaving the NRSC in November, Frist explained that he wanted to use his newfound free time to focus attention on health-care issues.) Even some Republicans complained about the president's interference. One senator told The Washington Post, "We were elected, we are senators and we want to pick our own leader." Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) agreed, saying, "The worst thing the president can do is get into the middle of it."

The attitudes of Bush's other advisers toward Congress aren't any better than Rove's. Office of Management and Budget Director Mitch Daniels told The Wall Street Journal that the motto of congressional appropriators is, "Don't just stand there, spend something. That's the only way they feel relevant." Bush's then-Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill got into a spat with Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.) over which of them grew up poorer. And when asked about Congress' relations with the White House last March, GOP Rep. Todd Tiahrt (Kan.) told Congressional Quarterly, "We get a good ear, but we don't often get a good response."

Throughout Bush's two years in office, there has been a sense among Washington observers that the administration regards Congress as the White House's stepchild. In seeking to win support from members of Congress, Bush has often focused his attention outside Washington, going to lawmakers' states in an effort to get them to back his agenda. In areas where he has been unable to get bills through Congress -- such as faith-based initiatives -- he has resorted to executive orders. And he failed to adequately heed Sen. Jim Jeffords' (I-Vt.) anger about a lack of special-education funding. Jeffords subsequently left the GOP and handed control of the Senate to Democrats for 18 months.

Of course, all presidents have testy relations with Capitol Hill. Presidents want to enact their agendas and Congress is often a roadblock. "There's Article I and Article II and wow, you get to be an Article I or Article II person in this city," says Stephen Hess, a Brookings Institution scholar, refering to the fact that Article I of the Constitution deals with the legislative branch and Article II concerns the executive branch. But in Bush's case, there seems to be a stronger-than-usual resentment toward Capitol Hill. Perhaps it's because the only election Bush lost was for the House, when Democrat Kent Hance defeated him in 1978. Perhaps it's because his father didn't have a great relationship with the Hill, blaming lawmakers for making him reverse his infamous "no new taxes" pledge (the Bushes believe that sunk Bush Senior's re-election campaign). Perhaps it's because Bush thought he could replicate his experience in dealing with the Texas Legislature, where he easily defeated Democrats who weren't all that ideologically different from him. Perhaps it's because Bush comes from a business background, where executive decision making -- not forging consensus -- is stressed.

Regardless, the worst part is that Bush's bullying strategy has worked. Despite the fact that Bush lost the 2000 election -- after all, Al Gore did beat him in the popular-vote count -- lawmakers have rolled over to meet Bush's demands. Sure, Bush didn't get his whole $1.6 trillion tax cut, but he got $1.35 trillion, a figure much higher than the one Democrats wanted to give him initially (and that was before September 11 enhanced the president's power). Last fall, then-House Minority Leader Richard Gephardt (D-Mo.) appeared with Bush at a White House ceremony in support of the Iraq resolution, despite many Democrats' concerns; the measure wound up passing both the House and Senate overwhelmingly. Many Democrats resented the efforts of Sen. Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.), the most vocal critic of the administration on Iraq; his tactics, they believed, were costing them valuable time on the campaign trail.

Now, with many GOP senators and representatives believing that Bush's last-minute campaigning pushed them across the victory line in November, Bush's power in relation to Congress is only likely to increase. And as the Brookings Institution's Tom Mann recently told The Hill, Bush "has had more influence in Congress with his party than any [president] we've seen in a long time." As the 2004 elections approach, Republicans -- led by Frist, who owes his job to White House support of his candidacy -- are going to be taking their marching orders from the administration, hoping that Bush's popularity will trickle down. And now that Senate Democrats are no longer able to call committee hearings to investigate the administration's actions, it's going to be that much harder for Congress to exert itself against the administration -- and that much easier for Bush to dismiss the legislative branch. Welcome to the imperial presidency.

Mary Lynn F. Jones is the Prospect's senior editor.