- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 14, 2002

Presidential Assistant Nick Calio talked to President Bush three times today, once in person and twice on the phone. He met with the four top congressional leaders, including the speaker of the house. He also discussed domestic policy with the White House senior staff, talked to two Cabinet members, conducted four short meetings with his team, gulped five cups of coffee and received a dozen calls from senators and congressmen and it's now only 9:00 a.m.
Welcome to another routine morning in the life of the president's lobbyist.
Presidential scholar Richard Neustadt describes American government as "separate institutions sharing power." Neither Congress nor the president unilaterally set policy. Everything is negotiated. They dance together or step on each other's toes in the lawmaking process. And the legislative tango that heats up the most in the White House is the Office of Legislative Affairs (OLA), featuring the Fred and Ginger of the Bush administration Nick Calio and his team of expert instructors.
The OLA relishes anonymity. Mr. Calio has three highly respected Hill veterans serving as deputies: Ziad Ojakli, David Hobbs and Jack Howard. They lobby the Capitol with eight other special assistants to the president and a supporting cast inside the White House. Dancing under the radar screen, they leave credit to the president or allies in Congress.
Despite little public notoriety, Mr. Bush's legislative operation receives high marks from on and off the Hill. For these reasons, this lobbying operation wields as much clout on both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue as any White House legislative department since the office was founded nearly 50 years ago.
Created in the Eisenhower administration, Legislative Affairs is the president's primary link to Congress. It's what the late Bryce Harlow, senior legislative adviser to several presidents, called "an ambulatory bridge across a constitutional divide." Ambulatory indeed wearing out numerous pairs of shoes doing a congressional tap dance; their performance plays a major role in determining presidential success or trip-ups in the legislative arena.
Over the past half-century, the White House's legislative prowess and the overall perception of the presidency became increasingly intertwined. Political scientist Jon Bond notes that, since FDR, "presidents have been judged more by their legislative success than by their executive ability." Talent on the legislative arena's dance floor defines success or failure of the modern presidency.
Having learned from previous legislative affairs operations, the current White House OLA puts together an impressive routine. "They definitely have the president's ear, one House leadership aide said. "They focus on a few things and do them well. They are tough and get results." The Bush troupe executes a three-step that's hard to top.
Step one unfettered access. Once lawmakers believe the legislative affairs staff lacks direct entree to the president they seek other avenues to make White House connections. When this happens, either in perception or reality, lobbying coordination and clout on the Hill begin to unravel. Having the ear of the president and direct access to the Oval Office, lawmakers believe this team is a reliable two-way pipeline to Mr. Bush.
Step two a focused agenda. Embracing too many initiatives on the Hill is a formula for failure. Lyndon Johnson used to say Congress is like a whiskey drinker "he can take a lot in small sips, but if you force too much down his throat he throws up." This White House focuses on a limited set of policies and does each well successful examples include tax cuts, education reform and trade promotion authority. During this week's lame duck session, the White House also kept its agenda focused: Congress should finish homeland security legislation. Doing too much wastes precious political capital.
Step three restricting "who" dances with Congress. Every administration faces the challenge of coordinating lobbying contacts with lawmakers. Sanctioning White House staff making unauthorized Hill contacts is critical. Having learned from past White House experiences, Mr. Calio zealously enforces this rule. His team lobbies for the White House, not the policy director, the counsel to the president or the Budget director. These and others may assist when needed and asked, but the president's legislative staff coordinates and controls contacts with lawmakers. The OLA is recognized within the White House as the one voice that speaks for the president on the Hill.
As the 107th Congress winds down this week and completes action on a few high-priority items, you may not read a lot about those choreographing the production behind the scenes, but lawmakers will appreciate their subtle role. Sometimes they waltz with individual lawmakers. Other times they soft-shoe with bigger groups. Either way, the OLA men and women do a pretty nice jig, keeping the White House and the Congress from getting too tangled up in the mosh pit of legislation.


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