Orientation and Getting Started
Early Development of the Legislative Branch and the Problem of Representation
Enumerated Powers of Congress
Implied, Expansive, and Limited Powers
The Two Congresses: Representation and Lawmaking
Separation of Powers and Interaction between the Branches
Institutional Development and Change
Congress and the American People

The Modern President and the Balance of Power

Separated Presidency and Diffused Responsibility

An alternative view of the imperial presidency/responsible party government perspective is the separated presidency/diffused responsibility perspective. According to this view, while no modern president is going to be “small” or inconsequential, Congress has not lost its lawmaking capacity or its ability to check the president, and a party mandate is not necessary for the separation of powers system to work.  Charles Jones (1994) has demonstrated that while the President may initiate proposals, plenty of bills start and are refined within the Congress. Moreover, Congress can and does check presidential power, either by building legislative capacity or by rejecting or significantly altering the president’s programs. In addition, by limiting the terms of House members to every two years and requiring one-third of the Senate to be elected every two years, the Constitution gives the voters the power to check a Responsible Party Government that might arise during a presidential election year. 

Two examples of congressional responses to executive abuse are the War Powers Act of 1973 and the Budget and Impoundment Control Act of 1974. The mismanagement of the Vietnam War led to the War Powers Act, which gave Congress a statutory role in overseeing military engagements undertaken by the President. President Nixon’s impoundment of federal funds approved by Congress, together with the realization that Congress needed a more integrative approach to taxing and spending decisions, led to the Budget and Impoundment Control Act. The Act empowered Congress to create budget committees in the House and Senate that would be responsible for drafting an annual budget resolution consisting of projected totals for spending, revenues, and deficits/surpluses, and major spending categories, like defense, energy, health, and so forth. The Budget Act also created Congressional Budget Office (CBO) to rival the president’s Office of Management and Budget (OMB) by providing Congress with an independent source of review and analysis of spending and revenues. Congress always had the power to enact spending and tax bills, an enumerated power in Article I, Section 8 of the Constitution, but those decisions were largely delegated to tax and spending committees and subcommittees. The budget committees provided Congress with a vehicle for integrating the parts into a coherent budget. Under the right conditions, including divided party control and strong party unity, the budget resolution gives Congress the capacity to counteract the president’s budget.

Meanwhile, the voters have checked the force and sustainability of presidential legislative power through Responsible Party Government on several occasions in the post-World War II era. In 1964, Democratic presidential candidate Lyndon Johnson won 61% of the popular vote, and his party gained thirty-six House seats and held overwhelming majorities in the House and Senate. Johnson and congressional Democrats pushed through major Great Society programs. But, with turmoil at home and war in Vietnam, public confidence in the President eroded and Johnson declined to run for re-election. In 1968, the voters elected Republican presidential candidate Richard Nixon and his party gained a handful of seats in the House and Senate. In 1980, Republican presidential candidate Ronald Reagan won an Electoral College landslide victory over incumbent Democratic President Jimmy Carter. Meanwhile, Republicans gained 34 House seats, enough to combine with conservative Democrats to form a working conservative majority in the House, and twelve Senate seats to gain majority control of the Senate. The Congress quickly enacted Reagan’s economic plan, including major tax cuts, but the economy struggled and Democrats regained twenty-six seats in the 1982 midterm elections. In 2008, Democratic presidential candidate, Barack Obama, won a sweeping victory for change and Democrats increased their majorities in the House and Senate. But, after Congress enacted a major economic stimulus plan and an historic health care reform, in 2010 Republicans gained sixty-three House seats (enough to regain the majority) and six Senate seats. Thus, episodes of Responsible Party Government tend to be rare and short-lived.  

Moreover, Congress and the president do not need to be of the same party, (nor do they need a popular mandate) in order to pass major legislation. Congress and the President find ways to enact major laws during periods of divided government. Political scientist David Mayhew’s (1991) study of  major legislation from World War II to 1990 revealed that the chances of passing a major bill are just as high under divided party government as under unified party government. The study is dated, but the overall finding still holds twenty-five years later.  In the first half of 2015, a Republican Congress and a Democratic president came to agreement on several major issues, including Medicare reform (referred as the ‘Doc Fix’), trade legislation (fast track authority for the Trans-Pacific Partnership), and national security (the USA Freedom Act, a reauthorization of the PATRIOT Act to conduct intelligence surveillance to combat terrorism).

In the Separated President/Diffused Responsibility alternative to Responsible Party Government, responsibility for governing is likely to be shared by both parties rather than held by one of them; the policy agenda is likely to be the source of various factors rather than just a presidential election campaign; coalitions in support of legislation are likely to take a variety of forms—sometimes the majority party will prevail, but laws often depend on bipartisan or cross-partisan majorities (coalitions consisting of  a majority of members from one party and a minority of the other)—and the president’s influence over Congress is likely to vary with circumstances rather than be preponderant on all issues.

 In other words, the modern presidency has elevated the executive—the president is expected to play a leadership role in national and international affairs and he has more tools to do the job—but it has not obliterated the power of Congress.  The separation of powers and checks and balances, or “separate institutions sharing and competing for powers” describes contemporary politics.  The President and members of Congress are still elected by different constituents (and therefore answer to different voters); they hold office for different terms; and they are often elected in different years (thus they often campaign on different issues). The parties are more unified and polarized than they used to be, but party members don’t always hold together and they are not always opposed to their counterparts from the other party. Opinion polls always report higher approval ratings for the President than for Congress, but every president faces low approval ratings from time-to-time and thus cannot always count on public opinion, and individual members of Congress are routinely re-elected to office. Finally, Congress and the President have independent powers, but often rely upon one another to advance their policy goals.