- The Washington Times - Sunday, November 2, 2008

Voters for the first time in almost five decades on Tuesday will send a sitting member of Congress to the White House, with Sens. Barack Obama and John McCain both promising to thaw the prickly relationship between the two branches of government.

But congressional experience is no guarantee the next president will have a cozy time with his former colleagues, as both candidates would likely face obstacles on Capitol Hill that could slow or sidetrack their political agendas.

“With Obama, he was not in the Senate very long, and John McCain is not very well-liked in the Senate, so [their congressional experience] might cut the other way,” said Gene Healy, a vice president at the libertarian-leaning Cato Institute and author of the 2008 book “The Cult of the Presidency.”

“I don’t know how much we can read into whether legislative experience at the federal level is going to lead to greater comity” between Capitol Hill and the White House.

With Democrats expected to make significant gains to their House and Senate majorities, a Democratic Obama administration would have a clear mandate to press ahead with his priorities, such as an expansion of government-subsidized health care, other spending programs, and a mix of tax increases and middle-class tax cuts.

Read all articles from The Washington Times’ 2008 Voter Issues series.

An Obama presidency would have a more unified Democratic majority in Congress compared with what greeted the two previous Democrats in the White House - Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter.

“Twenty or 30 years ago [the Democratic Caucus] had a progressive part in some parts of the country and a conservative wing in the South that in some ways meant that [Democrats] didn’t run Congress from the top; it was run from the committees,” said John Fortier, a Congress scholar with the conservative American Enterprise Institute. “That’s very different today.”

And despite Mr. Obama’s image as a reformer, his campaign hasn’t been shy about hiring Washington insiders who are “unlikely to stick a finger in Congress’ eye, either accidentally or on purpose,” Mr. Fortier said.

Yet if Mr. Obama leaves the Senate for the White House, he may leave behind a few bruised egos among his former colleagues.

“They’re going to expect his phone calls to be returned because, ‘Hey, he was one of us,’ and now he has the mystique of a president,” Mr. Fortier said. “I think there could be occasional bad feelings on that regard.”

A sustained sour economy would pressure lawmakers to hold off implementing Mr. Obama’s proposals on taxes and spending. House Ways and Means Chairman Charles B. Rangel, New York Democrat, for example, wants to lower the corporate income-tax rate, a position Mr. Obama has not advanced.

Mr. McCain has a history of cooperating with Hill Democrats, and a McCain presidency likely would have a less contentious relationship with Congress than fellow Republican President Bush did. But if Mr McCain shocks the pollsters and wins Tuesday, a Democratic majority on Capitol Hill would be in no mood to work with another Republican administration.

“The best-case scenario of a McCain presidency would be that McCain, like [former Republican President] Gerald Ford, would use the veto power vigorously and keep Congress in check,” Mr. Healy said.

Mr. Healy also speculated that Mr. McCain may be willing to cut deals to let Democratic leaders mostly have their way on domestic issues if they let him control foreign policy. “McCain’s real passion is foreign policy, and he might go along with the Democratic majority to keep a free hand abroad,” he said.

Both candidates have expressed an unwillingness to step on congressional toes and duplicate the Bush administration’s expansion of executive powers if elected president.

In an interview with The Washington Times in October, Mr. McCain said he would step back from some of the executive authority Mr. Bush has claimed, including the president’s frequent use of signing statements - written pronouncements issued by a president when signing a bill into law that shades its meaning.

“I would veto the bills or say, Look, I don’t like it, but I’ll obey, you know, the law that’s passed by Congress and signed by the president,’ ” he said. “I think the signing statements was not a correct implementation of the power of the executive. I think it was overstepping.”

Mr. McCain blasted the current administration’s varying assertions of privilege for Vice President Dick Cheney, saying, “I don’t agree with Dick Cheney’s allegation that he’s part of both the executive and legislative branch.”

Mr. Obama also repeatedly has accused the administration of overextending its powers. In a Boston Globe questionnaire in December 2007, Mr. Obama said that, if elected president, he wouldn’t use signing statements “to nullify or undermine congressional instructions as enacted into law.”

“The problem with this administration is that it has attached signing statements to legislation in an effort to change the meaning of the legislation,” said Mr. Obama, adding that it was a “clear abuse” of executive authority.

But don’t count on either candidate to significantly scale back executive power, Mr. Healy said.

“I don’t think men who have done what’s necessary to become president and have gone through the enormous, endless labor that requires [will] arrive in the office and say, ‘You know, I need less power,’ ” he said.

Even Mr. Obama, who has campaigned as a reformer and has tried to portray Mr. McCain as a Bush lackey, is unlikely to diminish the powers of the presidency if elected, Mr. Healy said.

“People who think that Barack Obama is going to end George Bush’s imperial presidency are really kidding themselves,” he said. “People who railed against the expansion of executive power under Bush are going to see things differently when their team is in office.”

Both candidates also have promised to trim pork-barrel projects from spending bills, with Mr. McCain going as far as to say he would eliminate all such legislative “earmarks.”

Such a move would be met with strong resistance from many members of Congress, who routinely use the earmark system to pay for pet projects in their home state or district.

But tension between the executive and legislative branches isn’t necessarily a bad situation, as it helps foster the checks and balances that the framers of the Constitution deemed crucial to the survival of American democracy, many political experts say.

“I think the idea of the legislative and executive branches working together is dramatically overvalued,” Mr. Healy said. “In our Constitution and in the Federalist Papers, gridlock is good - it’s not a pejorative term.”

Stephen Dinan contributed to this report.