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In border dispute, focus should be on Congress

President Trump is increasingly going public in an effort to secure funding for his border wall.  On Tuesday, Trump gave his first ever prime-time Oval Office address, and yesterday, he visited the Texas border for a roundtable on immigration and security.  All this comes amidst the second longest government shutdown in American history.

As with everything Trump does, from his fondness of McDonalds to the ties he wears, the media dissects the president’s actions ad nauseam: Does Trump have the Constitutional authority to build the wall?  What is the president’s strategic calculus in escalating the issue?  Will this fight energize Trump’s base?

What about Congress?

Not isolated to border security, or the Trump era for that matter, the media’s disproportionate focus on the presidency reflects a pervasive view in American politics: that the executive branch is powerful and the legislative branch is weak.  In particular, the widely shared view among many political observers is that presidents are able to use public appeals to compel lawmakers to act on their legislative priorities.  Either presidents persuade recalcitrant lawmakers with direct appeals (the archetype being Lyndon Johnson) or the president’s media power changes Americans’ attitudes which, in turn, pressures lawmakers to act (the archetype being Ronald Reagan).

Is the truism true?  No, Congress isn’t as weak in the face of presidential pressure as many believe.  In fact, the conventional wisdom among political scientists is that the president is woefully ineffective in efforts to force Congress to act on a given issue.  Congress is the first branch of government, after all.  Even in the Trump era—when facing a cartoonish version of what going public looks like—Congress has shown a willingness to buck the president more often than not, including under unified Republican control.

Perhaps the definitive work on this topic is George C. Edwards’ aptly titled “On Deaf Ears.”  In his book, Edwards examines both public opinion and presidential approval before and after a president’s speech.  In brief, Edwards finds that presidents are most often unsuccessful at moving either in their favor.  According to Edwards’ analysis, most improvements in public opinion or presidential approval are short-lived.

Although it is possible the conventional wisdom is wrong in the Trump era, recent polling seems to validate this conclusion.  Namely, despite his many public appeals, the American people increasingly blame Trump for the shutdown.

Worse, still, there is evidence that presidential appeals decrease the likelihood of Congress acting in a manner favorable to the president on an issue.  In her book “Beyond Ideology,” Frances Lee explores the frequency of partisan roll call voting on non-ideological bills (i.e. those that shouldn’t split the parties on policy grounds) and finds that they occur about 33% of the time.  Notably, when the president takes a position, 50% of roll calls are partisan.   Simply put, presidential appeals cause the opposition to work harder to resist the president’s initiatives.

Brandice Canes-Wrone in “Who Leads Whom?” adds further evidence to support the argument that presidents are not as effective in the legislative arena as is commonly believed. One of the main takeaways from her book is that presidents tend to advocate policies that are already popular.  In this respect, while some presidential priorities do end up passing, it is likely Congress would have taken up those issues anyway.

A common response to these arguments is “popular presidents are more effective than unpopular presidents.”  Although there is some evidence to support this claim, even popular presidents are often stymied in their legislative agenda.  In an influential paper, Jeffrey E. Cohen et al. find the effect of presidential approval is either weak or entirely non-existent.  What does affect presidential success, according to their analysis?  Factors specific to Congress: lawmakers’ partisanship and ideology.

It is important to qualify that presidential success is either contingent, or manifests in other ways, according to a range of studies.  For example, Aaron Wildavsky popularized the conventional wisdom that the president is more successful in foreign policy vs. domestic policy.  Likewise,  Canes-Wrone finds that public appeals result in congressional appropriations closer to the president’s position.  Additional research shows that presidents have powerful priming and agenda setting effects (see for example this study by Druckman and Holmes).

Yet despite these qualifications, the point remains the same: presidents have limited power in the legislative arena despite the amount of attention they receive in policy disputes like the current one.  It is always worth remembering that the Founding Fathers designed our system of government to limit executive power.  And while the modern presidency is certainly more powerful than it was in 1788, Trump lacks a number of basic legislative powers, namely the power to introduce a bill or force Congress to vote.

Lastly, the media’s over-emphasis on the presidency is not some benign feature of our political climate, one that merely frustrates political scientists and legislative politics nerds.  Congress can, and should, assert itself in an effort to resolve these issues.  By focusing on President Trump, however, journalists and other political observers let lawmakers off the hook for resolving these critical issues.  No doubt this is most true of Senate Republicans, who are trying to sidestep the issue entirely and keep the focus on Trump.  Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said the Senate would not “waste its time” on a bill that doesn’t “carry the endorsement of the president.”

Frankly, McConnell’s comments are shocking for someone in his position, as they echo the view that Congress is too weak to confront the president on its own turf.  Not only is this contrary to academic findings, but it ignores fundamental features of our Constitution.

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Topics: Representation & Leadership