Joy Reid is the managing editor of TheGrio.com and an on-air contributor on MSNBC’s The Reid Report. Her commentary below is an opinion piece.
If you want a better president, get a better congress.
It’s one of my favorite sayings, and not just because I came up with it, but also because it happens to be true.
And it’s as relevant as ever now, as we enter what you might call the “the down”years of the Obama presidency. Sure,the economy has recovered from the Great Recession George W. Bush left on his way out the door … we’re not in any wars, and Wall Street is doing really well(lucky them) … but the overall vibe in the country is profoundly negative. And many people blame the president, for the fact that real wages are stagnant and the federal minimum wage is stuck; and black unemployment is still double overall unemployement and we’ve done nothing to address persistent problems like gun violence.
If you read some of the big thinkers who spend time writing about politics today, the problem is that the president isn’t leading. He needs to stand up and lead, and somehow a recalcitrant congresswill follow.
That’s the same congress, by the way, that recently voted to sue the president for “leading” on healthcare reform, while demanding that he use the same executive action they’re suing him over, to solve the unaccompanied minor crisis on the border.
So here’s the thing.
As I’m sure you know, congress, according to the Constitution, is the first branch of government. It’s powers are spelled out in Article I, and actually exceed those of the president, who comes up in Article II. And the makeup of congress has a powerful impact on the kind of presidency we experience.
If the Court makes a ruling congress doesn’t like, they can pass a law overiding it.
If Congress passes a law the president doesn’t like, he can veto it, but a 2/3 majority of them can overrule him.
The president can nominate judges,including to the Supreme Court, but only the Senate can put them on the bench.
Congress’ powers are so broad, they have the ability to literally bring government itself to a grinding halt, which the current congress has actually done.
The makeup of congress matters.
Back in the 1930s, FDR had 59 Democratic Senators and just 36 Republicans in the Senate when hisNew Deal was enacted. From 1937 to 1939, he had a Senate with 75 Democrats in it, and just 17 Republicans. And most of those Democrats were on President Roosevelt’s side.
President John F. Kennedy couldn’t get a civil rights bill through, despite having 64 Democrats in the Senate — four more than are needed to override a veto — because so many of those Democrats were southern segregationists.
By the time Lyndon Johnson took over as president, he needed Republican votes to get the Civil Rights Act through;but he had 68 Democrats in place by the time the Voting Rights Act passed in 1965.
Bill Clinton’s agenda changeddramatically after the 1994 midterms and the Republican takeover of the House and Senate. And that new agenda, including welfare reform, was a compromise in Republicans’ favor. And they still tried to impeach him.
Which brings us to President Obama.
Who when he took the oath of office, was looking at a Senate with just 55 Democrats and 2 Independents in it; 3 short of what’s needed to end a fillibuster, assuming all the Democrats stuck with him, since Republicans had made a decision on inauguration day to get to 41 Senate votes, and filibuster everything.
With the exception of the stimulus, which passed in February 2009 with three Republican Senators voting for it, nearly every other major piece of legislation attributed to President Obaam’s legacy, from the Lilly ledbetter Fair Pay Act, to the Fair Sentencing Act that reduced drug sentence disparities, to the Affordable Care Act, passed in the brief, six-month window between July 2009 and Christmas Eve of that year, when Obamacare was voted through in the Senate, with LITTLE OR NO Republican votes.
After Democrats lost Obama’s Illinois Senate seat and Republican Scott Brown grabbed the late Teddy Kennedy’s Massachusetts seat, pushing Democrats under 60 votes in 2010, things went downhill fast. The Senate put up the most fillibusters in its 200-plus year history.
And once Republicans also took over the House, in the 2010 midterms, well, you know how it’s been since then. At this point, the hottest topic in Republican circles is impeachment. And the current congress has passed fewer laws than any congress in modern history.
Now that’s not to say there’s nothing the president can or should do. And this president in my opinion doesn’t utilize, nearly enough, the symbolic powers of his office. But it’s just a basic fact of American political life that the make up of congress matters. A lot. And double that when it comes to the politicians who impact your day to day life — your governor, mayor, your school board, and your elected judges. If you don’t pay attention to who they are? Well let’s just say good luck with that.
Something to think about as we head into the midterms.
– “Joy Reid is the host of MSNBC’s ‘The Reid Report’ airing weekdays at 2 p.m. For the latest news, follow the show on Twitter @TheReidReport.”