- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 6, 2006

During the administration of George H.W. Bush, my friend and former White House Legislative Affairs colleague Nick Calio used to give speeches laying out the architecture of successful presidential relations with Congress. And while many of his principles applied universally, one of the precepts — the role of the presidency in stopping bad legislation from becoming law — has rarely been uttered in the past six years. Like the legislative equivalent of an old locomotive’s handbrake, it’s a stratagem from a previous time when institutional conditions were different. But it’s back, albeit a little rusty.

For the past six years, Republicans in Congress immunized the White House from the task by taking into their own hands the role of stopping bad public policy. Republican leaders ensured legislation the president would find unacceptable never reached his desk. As a result, interest groups and lobbyists could focus on Congress when it came to the lawmaking process. Yet beginning in January the ground will shift once again, closer to the regime faced by President George H.W. Bush for all of his term and President Clinton for most of his.

Indeed, despite a six-year hiatus, the mixed government arrangement that begins on Jan. 4, when Congress reconvenes is a popular arrangement. As I wrote in my Nov. 16 column “Back to divided government,” this is a song we’ve heard often over the past 50 years. In fact, until George W. Bush, every Republican president since Dwight Eisenhower has dealt with a Democratic House for his entire term. John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson are the only two presidents over the past half century who never confronted divided government.

Yet the public’s preference for split control is in many ways peculiar to the last half of the 20th century. For example, according to political scientist Morris Fiorina, unified government occurred 22 times, and divided control only four times in the 26 presidential and midterm elections between 1900 and 1952. However, the 27 most recent biennial elections between 1952 and 2006 produced only 10 unified but 17 divided-government outcomes.

So the mostly unified government (there was a brief interruption on the Senate side for about 18 months when Sen. Jim Jeffords left the Republican Party, shifting the majority until the 2002 elections re-established GOP control) President Bush experienced is a bit of an aberration. Still, the tactical memories of some in Washington may be a bit fuzzy. Given the policy trajectory of the new Democrat majority, many may be reacquainting themselves with how, when and where to engage the White House in the process of stopping “bad” public policy. Indeed, it’s an arrow business and conservative interests in Washington may want to add to their advocacy quiver.

President Bush, who has only used his veto pen once in six years, will no doubt begin to moisten the felt tip, as did his father, who returned 46 bills to the Democratic-controlled Congress between 1989 and 1992. The calculus leading up to a veto is complex. How much support a bill had in the House and Senate is a factor. The executive branch departments with jurisdiction over the issue also play a role. Inside the Executive Office of the President, the Chief of Staff Office, the Office of Legislative Affairs, the counsel’s office, the Domestic and Economic Policy Counsels, and the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) are among the key players in recommending if the president should veto a bill. These views are coordinated, debated and then communicated to lawmakers in the form of an OMB Statement of Administration Policy (SAP) before the House and Senate take final action on a bill.

The president himself will rarely commit to a veto before a bill reaches his desk. Normally in the Reagan, George H.W. Bush and Clinton White Houses, if the SAP said “The President’s senior advisors will recommend a veto,” it almost always resulted in presidential disapproval of the legislation. Shaping these veto messages is crucial in sending messages to allies on the Hill.

In the new world order next year, savvy interest groups will build a host of White House visits into their advocacy strategies. Executive branch actors will now play a much more pivotal role in the lawmaking process than they have in the recent past. Many in Washington may want to slow down or defeat the policies of the new congressional majority. Refilling the legislative brake fluid drained from the executive branch after six years of unified government is a powerful way to do it.

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