Tuesday, February 12, 2013

The State of the Union

Matt Yglesias had a great post earlier today in response to a David Brooks column where Brooks calls for Obama to abandon the never ending fight over how much to tax the rich and instead use the State of the Union tonight to roll out a variety of policy proposals David Brooks likes:
If the president were to propose an agenda for the future, he’d double spending on the National Institutes of Health. He’d approve the Keystone XL pipeline. He’d cut corporate tax rates while adding a progressive consumption tax. He’d take money from Social Security and build Harlem Children’s Zone-type projects across the nation. He’d means test Medicare and use the money to revive state universities and pay down debt.  
Matt pointed out that while he agrees with these policies, following Brooks' advice wouldn't be very helpful:
The problem with that idea is that the president can't cut corporate tax rates while adding a progressive consumption tax. All he can do is propose cutting corporate tax rates while adding a progressive consumption tax...The 2010 Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act did (among other things) cut Medicare spending in order to (among other things) improve health care services for children. Republicans lambasted it, but it passed anyway since Democrats had majorities in Congress. Today, a proposal to go farther down that road would go nowhere due to the existence of persistent partisan disagreement.
Exactly.  Probably one of the biggest misconceptions with how a lot of reporters and commentators approach covering American politics is about the basic structure of our system of government itself.  The Presidency is the most widely covered aspect of journalism about politics, but by design it simply isn't very powerful.  This is difficult for a lot of people to understand because of they way our media covers the Presidency and the way we are taught from an early age to view the President as a sort of national father who plays a role in dealing with all the problems of the day.  But if you step back and look at the powers of the office in the specific instead of grand themes about intangible concepts like "leadership" you see a pretty limited office.  A President can not spend money or write laws, they can only veto and sign a budget or law Congress sends to the White House.  A President has very few ways to punish a member of Congress of their own party, let alone a member of the opposition.  Indeed, a President can't even get a bill submitted to Congress without some member agreeing to walk it up on the floor and put it in the hopper.

Furthermore the other branches of Government have powerful tools to fight back against any attempt by the White House to bypass Congress, the Courts or the Federal Bureaucracies.  A president who offends Congress can find themselves under investigation and their nominees blocked.  The Supreme Court has been a thorn in the side of Presidents with expansive designs of executive authority since the days of Andrew Jackson and even beyond.  When I was in college one of my Sociology professors told our class a great story of how Federal Bureaucrats could work to fight back against people the White House would send to radically change their Department or slash their budgets.  For her PHD she interviewed a lot of very high level people in one of the Departments in Washington (i think it was one of the boring ones likes Agriculture or Interior) and they told her a great trick.  When new Administrations would come to town they'd often try and discipline theses departments by sending in a new cabinet level or sub-cabinet level person, like a Deputy Undersecretary, with the orders to kick ass and take names if what the White House wanted wasn't implemented.  It was suppose to go a lot like this.  The folks in the Department would fight back by waiting until the White House's person had to go and testify before Congress.  Since they had been in Washington a lot longer than the typical Cabinet Secretary they would brief the Secretary very well but leave our crucial details that they knew Senators would ask about, but that the Secretary wouldn't, as they had never testified before Congress before.  The result would be the Secretary would look foolish in front of all of Washington, weakening their position inside the Administration and illustrating just how important good relations with their staff is.  The end result of this trick was a dialing back of kick ass and take names and the end of attempts to radically change everything in the Department.  In short, the anonymous bureaucrats beat the President of the United States. 

Does this mean the Presidency "doesn't matter?" Of course not.  A President is very important, but that importance doesn't translate into unfettered power.  And so the State of the Union tonight matters, it will tell us about Obama's priorities and positions, but giving a speech won't transcend the important structural factors in Washington today, like the fact we have divided government and the dysfunctional state of the GOP.

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