The president’s relationship with Congress is vital to American politics. Federalism and the Constitution cry out for both the president and Congress to work constructively together for the benefit of America.

“The Presidency’s single most important political relationship is that with Congress.” (Bowles).


Political commentators have described their relationship as the “central link” in American politics.

Congress can either pass or not potential presidential authorisations and it is a sign of a politically positive relationship when Congress does this without too many problems especially as in recent years the make-up of Congress has been at odds with the political standing of the president. Clinton as a Democrat had to work with a Republican dominated Congress for most of his two terms in office. President Bush has had to work with a Senate that was made up of a Republican majority, but after J Jeffards changed from Republican to Independent, this was no longer the case.

Congress also has to confirm and support the president’s nominees for the Supreme Court and his Executive office. The president is deemed to have a positive relationship with Congress when it passes his bills and supports his appointments even if Congress is dominated by the opposing party in American politics. Despite his historical fame, the amount of legislation passed through the presidency of Kennedy was minimal as his proposals languished in committees where they were left to wither.

No president can avoid political engagements with Congress (unless he has no legislative initiatives which is barely likely!). In recent years the most important bills have been ratified by Congress after much back room debate. The Great Reform bills of Lyndon Johnson were passed but only after much ‘wheeling’ and dealing in back rooms with Congressional chairman. Nixon, who had a less than positive relationship with Congress, had to seek their support for SALT 1 and for expanding the money spent on the Vietnam War. Since September 11th, 2001, President Bush has had a relatively free ride by Congress which had to be seen to be supporting the commander-in-chief in the country’s time of need. If Congress had been seen by the public to be obstructing the president in his drive against terrorism, then it is likely that the public would have had its say in Congressional elections, many of which are due in November 2002, just over a year after the terrorist outrages.

In essence Congress and the president have what is essentially a policy of bargaining if a particular bill is potentially controversial. The president will make a relatively vague statement as to what he wants introduced but with no specifics attached to it. Members of his Executive office will then start to put details on to the bill and contact with Congress can be made at this point to establish whether certain issues will cause problems or not. This is done discretely and with no publicity. When the final bill arrives at Congress for debate and ratification, it should be passed with relative ease as the potential flash points should have been dealt with at this time. If, however, certain issues have been put into a bill and Congress does not support them, that is where the back room dealing takes place to get the bill passed but so that it pleases everyone.

The one thing that neither Congress nor the President can accept, is a public perception of two squabbling bodies which are meant to be the pinnacle of political power within America. There is an attempt to work together so that the nation which claims to be the leading light of democracy has a political structure which befits this title. Public disputes between a president and Congress are rare. The most obvious example of this in recent years was Clinton’s problems with Congress over what is called “the Lewinsky affair”. Neither came out of this scandal well The president was seen as a liar and adulterer whereas the Republicans in Congress were seen as having only one requirement from this affair – to get out the president. The Democrats in Congress were also shown to be split over the affair.

It was of no surprise to many that the relationship between the two (president and Congress)  stabilised with some speed as both lost credibility with the American public.

The Constitution gives the president clearly defined powers in his relationship with Congress and he plays a key role at both the beginning and at the conclusion of the legislative process.

Article I Section 7, states that the president can veto legislation presented to him – as all legislation must be for his acceptance signature. If a president does not sign what is presented to him, then that legislation in its current form does not become law. Congress has to sustain this veto and to overturn a presidential veto Congress has to muster a 2/3rds majority – a far from simple task. For the first two years of his presidency, Clinton did not use the power of presidential veto but both Houses had a Democratic majority. However, when Congress became dominated by Republicans in years 3 to 4 of his first term in office, he did use the veto. In 1996, he vetoed the Republicans fiscal year budget which wanted reductions in spending in Medicare, welfare, education and environmental programmes.

Article II Section 3, states that the president can recommend to Congress measures that “he shall judge necessary and expedient.” This power to recommend is the basis for presidential leadership of Congress in both strategic and tactical senses as it enables the president to choose between options and to decide upon the order of priorities. The president can publicly and privately express his views though Congress does not have to support them. In this sense the Constitution is seen to be put into action in that the president has the right to express a view while those elected by the people have the right to reject them. Though Congress has the right to reject presidential recommendations, it rarely does so or it does so in a manner that frequently just dilutes a recommendation as opposed to outwardly rejecting it. Both parts of government have to be seen working together for the people as opposed to setting one another up against the other.

However, it is through the power of recommendation , agenda setting and lobbying that all modern presidents have organised their relationship with Congress. Today, people on the presidential staff are assigned by the president simply to develop and cultivate his relationship with Congress. These people essentially have four main tasks :

1) they assume responsibility within the White House for all questions on tactics and strategy. These people will tell a president when it is most advantageous to do something i.e. they will be experts in timing; when will it be best to recommend this; when would it be best to recommend this person for this position etc. These people identify obstacles to a recommendation and seek to suggest ways in which they can be navigated around.

2) they cultivate relations with those known to be uncommitted to recommendations in an attempt to marginalise opponents. They also do their utmost to do what their political allies want them to do.

3) they co-ordinate the lobbying work of the whole administration by ensuring that they advance the president’s priorities. This is almost an impossible task because the administration is so large at the Executive level and it is also difficult because individuals frequently pursue their own interests. It is also an important task because individuals within the administration can do great harm to a president when they embark on their own individual agenda. As government has got bigger, so the problem this issue raises has got more difficult to solve.

4) they seek to find out the views of supporters and potential supporters in both houses of Congress and they send these views back to the president so that problems with support can be identified before a recommendation becomes public rather than after it with the problems this would present to the president with the electorate and media etc. In this sense, these “Congressional relations staff” represent the president’s views to Congress and they also take back to him the views and attitudes of those in Congress.

Successful presidents have to master the ability to persuade. The Constitution separated the Executive and Legislative branches of government and therefore the president has no power over Congress. Hence he has to negotiate and bargain. No-one in the presidential staff is a member of the Legislative – nor are any of his political appointments within the Federal bureaucracy. Congress does not even have to physically respond to any presidential recommendation as they can pretend that it does not exist. Therefore a president has to rely on developing good relations with Congress, good tactics, good powers of persuasion and bargaining in order to win support.

“Society…..has confirmed the role as president as Chief Legislator, but has notequipped the president to perform it with the reliability that British Prime Ministers typically enjoy.” (Bowles) 


The reason for this lies in the Constitution’s separation of Legislative and Executive. They are literally two separate bodies and though the president is referred to in the world’s media as the “world’s most powerful man”, this is not necessarily the case at a political level in America. A Republican president with a Democrat dominated Congress, faces obvious party loyalty and partisan issues. The opposite is also true. Even a Democrat president with a Democrat dominated Congress cannot guarantee their support as they are essentially regional representatives who stand or fall by the votes of those they represent – and a presidential recommendation might not be popular with rural people, as an example.

However, the politics of divided party control has frequently lead to president and Congress working together through this system of bargaining. If they did not, there would be a stand-still in American politics. Historically, Republican presidents have always had more success in dealing with a Democrat dominated Congress than a Democrat president with a Republican dominated Congress. For six out of his eight years, Reagan had to work with a divided Congress and yet he is considered a very successful president in terms of his legislation. However, when this is stripped down to basics, Reagan played a patriot’s card and most of his most famous legislation involved boosting America’s military and financing her stand against the “evil empire”. Any politician who failed to support this could be seen as being easy on communism when the Cold War was certainly around and the fear of the old USSR was real.

Democrat presidents have had real problems with Democrat dominated Congress. Kennedy found that many of his recommendations died in Congress, Carter rarely got anything through Congress. An attempt to reform America’s energy system to bring it into line with the environmental movement that was emerging in the 1970’s, failed as Carter’s bill was passed by Congress but the changes made to it in Congress, made the final act all but unrecognisable from the bill put forward by Carter. Clinton has fared much better with a Republican Congress than a Democrat one ! In 1993/4, a Democrat Congress killed off a major health care reform bill even though there was a Democrat majority in both houses.

Therefore a simple same-party majority between the president and Congress does not guarantee that the president will see his recommendations accepted. This would indicate that the ideologies held by American politicians are not simply linked to one party. Cross-party support for a certain issue can and does happen. If it did not happen, then, given the frequency with which presidents have to work with the opposing party in Congress, political gridlock would occur and politics would degenerate into a farce. Congress invariably has to work with the president and vice versa if the system is not going to be held up to ridicule by the voting public and abroad.

Since September 11th 2001, Congress and the president have worked closely together in a show of unity. President Bush has issued many Executive Orders to bolster America’s security and the use of the military in Afghanistan received support from Congress. In July 2002, Congress approved of the largest expansion of America’s military with a $34.4 billion increase in defence spending. The impetus for this came from the president and in many senses Congress could not refuse his requirements as President Bush has constantly played on America’s security as being at stake. In urging the Senate to pass in July what the House had passed in June, President Bush said:

“With our nation at war, it is imperative that we address the important priority of ensuring that our troops have the resources they need.”


If Congress had not passed the presidential push for increased defence spending, then they themselves would have been blamed by the public and in November 2002, all House and one-third of the Senate are up for re-election. President Bush’s increased budget (that will total $355 billion) was passed by 95 votes to 3 in a clear sign of unity between the White House and Congress.

Related Posts

  • The president's closest advisors work with him in the Executive Office. The president's main advisory body is his Cabinet - which he appoints - but…
  • The Congress that will come into being after the November 2006 Midterms will be dominated by the Democrats who will hold a healthy majority in…
  • Vertical and horizontal federalism are important aspects of America's political structure. Of the identified forms of federalism, vertical and horizontal are considered to be the…