The New Relationship between the Executive and Legislative Branches

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By Judith Oliver – The relationship between the executive and legislative branches of government hinges on what party is in charge of each branch and what issues are at the top of their respective agendas. Another consideration is the personalities of those individuals in leadership positions. Due to the historic and unprecedented inauguration of Barack Obama as 44th President and the current challenges facing the United States, expectations are high for a change in direction on a number of policy issues.

President Obama is the first president to ascend directly to the position from the Senate since John F. Kennedy nearly 50 years ago. Drawing upon this experience, he has stocked his cabinet and staff with individuals who have intimate knowledge of the legislative branch. The Vice President, Joe Biden, spent more than 36 years serving in the Senate. Most recently he chaired the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and prides himself on having a keen understanding of the foreign policy agenda. Chief of Staff, Rahm Emanuel, spent 4 terms as a congressman from Illinois. While serving in the House, he rapidly rose to the leadership of the House Democratic Caucus, the 4th highest position within his party. He enjoys a good working relationship with the Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi. The new Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, is well known on the world stage. She spent eight years toiling in the exclusive confines of the Senate as a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, working to build bipartisan support and consensus. She voted in favor of the war in Iraq but later criticized its execution. She has called for an end to the genocide in Darfur, and more international cooperation on a number of key issues. All of these individuals built relationships on Capitol Hill that they can call upon to move the Obama agenda forward.

The legislative branch began to experience a shift in priorities when the last session, the 110th Congress, was inaugurated in January 2007. Democrats became the majority in both houses for the first time in twelve years. They gained seats in large measure due to a backlash against the Bush administration and the Republican Party. Nancy Pelosi became the Speaker of the House at that time and Harry Reid became Senate Majority Leader. Still, it was difficult to work in concert with the Bush administration. While the executive branch centralized political power and did not cultivate relationships on Capitol Hill, the legislative branch was often seen to bicker internally over what direction to take legislation. The makeup of the sitting legislative body did not lend itself to easy passage of any bills that were promoted by the Bush administration. Both sides were entrenched and partisan sentiment ruled the day. The bailout bill that became law on October, 3, 2008, passed not because the Bush administration reached out, but because Congress felt pressure to act by financial institutions and constituents to try to mitigate the crisis.

The 111th Congress was inaugurated on January 6, 2009. It was a quiet affair with the focus squarely on the inauguration of the new president that was to follow. The Congressional Democrats look forward to a new relationship with the executive branch with their party firmly in charge of both branches. Republicans in Congress appear willing to engage with the president as long as there is recognition that their support is crucial to addressing the numerous crises he inherited. 

One week into his tenure, the President already welcomed the Congressional leadership of both parties to the White House and promises weekly meetings in the future. He took the additional step of going to Capitol Hill to meet solely with the Republican leadership to advocate for passage of the economic stimulus bill. The relationship between the previous administration and Congress was intractable on most issues. With the swearing-in of one of their own, and appointees being plucked from their ranks, Congress appears ready to re-engage with the executive branch and recognize the relationship as a partnership in order to address the acute crises facing the United States.

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Judith Oliver is a Congressional Fellow with the Security for a New Century program at the Stimson Center

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