How does a President ever get bills passed in Congress?

I’m not an American but I’ve been trying to follow the proposed healthcare bills making their way through congress at the moment. The process sounds so arduous: votes to open debate, votes for cloture, votes to send to committee, votes on the committee’s compromise, in the House, Senate and Committee. And then the President could still veto it anyway, a veto which can be overcome with enough votes… I guess that’s the whole point of ‘checks and balances’.

Anyway, Obama at present seems to relying entirely on his strong majorities in both houses to get his bill passed. In the Senate he needs 60 votes to bring debate to cloture and avoid a filibuster; fortunately he (sort of) has 60 Democrats, so if he can unite that coalition he’ll have the votes he needs.

But when Presidents don’t have the majority he has, say if they have 55 votes - how do they get anything significant passed? There’s undeniably an element to this Republican opposition against healthcare which thinks, “if we can defeat Obama on everything he tries, he’ll be a failure and the public will swing back to us again”. If the opposition party has say, 45 senators, what stops them from filibustering anything that will benefit the President?

Ps: I don’t really want to spark any discussions on the merits of the healthcare bills or anything like that. I’m just wondering what would stop either party, in opposition, from crushing any significant element of the President’s agenda whatsoever.


Most Americans don’t understand how, in a paliamentary system, a prime minister can get anything done when a “no” vote can lead to a vote of no confidence and the collapse of the government.

Like **Sage Rat **said, it’s compromise.

Thanks for being informative… ‘compromise’ assumes that the opposition has some vague interest in passing your bill in some form, or at least doesn’t violently oppose it. But when it comes to a President’s agenda, surely a lot of it isn’t going to be very amenable to compromise: Obama wants to move towards universal healthcare, Republicans don’t. Obama might want to introduce a cap-and-trade bill, Republicans don’t. Obama might want to offer some type of amnesty for illegal immigrants, Republicans don’t. On the other hand if a Republican President wanted to introduce a bill banning most cases of abortion, Democrats would simply oppose it.

How would the ‘compromise’ work in those type of cases, if a President didn’t have the majorities Obama has? Doesn’t the opposition figure their interest lies with making their rival President a failure on all of the central elements of his agenda they oppose?

Reagan got a lot of his proposals passed into laws when the Democrats controlled both the House and Senate. He was very popular and there were conservative Democrats who helped him.

One simple answer (apart from toning down the proposal so that it gains support from both parties) is that a bill isn’t limited to a single thing. So, fairly often, a bill will include provisions that are designed to garner support from the other party.

So, for example: if you are in the minority, and want to pass a bill on X (let’s say cap-and-trade), your party probably has no chance of doing so on your own. However, if the majority needs some support to defeat a filibuster of a bill on Y (let’s say health care reform), it might put a cap-and-trade provision in its health care bill so that it will get some support from your party.

The same can be done with earmarks–if you want a military funding bill passed, one good way of ensuring the support of the senator from (let’s say) Kentucky is to include substantial funding for bases in Kentucky, or some weapons system that is manufactured in Kentucky. To some extent, it’s the job of a representative to vote for things that benefit their district- it’s also very helpful in re-election campaigns to have brought a lot of federal spending to your district.

The compromise comes down to how intently the opposition wants to defeat the majority party’s agenda, how concerned opposition senators are about re-election as opposed to party unity, and how big a concession the majority is willing to make.

The politics of practical compromise was much more civil then. A congressman could vote on his conscience (read: cross party lines) without alienating the party establishment and compromising the support of the party in his next reelection bid.

Look at this whole health care mess. Getting ONE congressman to cross party lines is a huge deal. It didn’t used to be that way. There should be a half dozen to a dozen congressmen crossing lines on any vote. Now the major issues are getting voted straight up or down. We are much poorer because of this.

As to the OP. The President has the ability to play strong arm politics. A single congressman can play politics to get votes for a pet project or bill that may or may not ever get voted on. The President has the clout to get the party to back his agenda and push major legislation to a vote. That’s the power of the Presidency.

Trade them with something they want.

If they really really don’t want it, you’re screwed. But hey, that’s the point of checks and balances. The Executive isn’t meant to have full power to decide policy.

Even though there’s more party discipline than there used to be in the American Congress, there’s still a lot less party discipline than there is in a lot of democratic legislatures.

A lot of the pull comes from senators/representatives of the other party, whose state the President won. Consider Maine, for instance: Obama won the state by a comfortable margin, so it’s clear that the people of Maine, by and large, like what Obama’s doing (or at least, what he said he would be doing when he was campaigning). When Obama says that he wants the health care bill to pass, Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins will pay attention, because if they oppose what the President wants, and their constituents like the President, then their own popularity will go down, and it’ll be harder for them to get re-elected. So the senators from Maine are a lot easier for the President to convince than, say, the ones from Oklahoma.

Another factor is that politicians, as a rule, like wielding power, and changing sides on an issue is one way to do that. Let’s say that there’s a bill that 57 senators definitely support, and 38 senators definitely oppose. Whether the bill passes or not then depends on those 5 senators in the middle: Effectively, what will happen is that those five senators will vote on it, and whichever side gets 3 or more of them will win. So if you’re one of those five senators, instead of being one voice out of a hundred, you’re one voice out of five, which is a lot more significant. So someone of the opposite party might be persuaded to at least consider voting your way, so as to be one of those power brokers. Of course, this works both ways: It also means that some members of your own party might defect, for the same reason. This appears to be a large part of what Lieberman is doing: Making himself an important person by virtue of being an undecided vote.

Bribery. If you study negotiation, it’s all about give and take. If they owe you a favor, they’ll vote for it. If they don’t, they want something for it. That’s how strange stuff like a new bridge for Alaska gets into these bills.

The requirement for 60 votes to get anything significant done in the Senate is a recent development.

Historically, filibusters were rare events. They were a final desperate measure by the minority to prevent legislation that they strongly opposed from coming to a vote. Sustaining a filibuster meant camping out in the Senate, speaking nonstop for hours and hours, and bringing the entire machinery of government to a stop. It was not something to be used lightly because the drama and disruption it caused could easily come back to haunt you at the next election.

However, the current rules allow for procedural filibusters. You don’t have to camp out and make a big public stink to block a bill. You just announce that you’re going to do it, and the bill is blocked.

This is a Very Bad Thing. Prior to 1970 there might be 4 or 5 filibusters during a typical two-year Senate term. Since then the number has been steadily rising. In 2008 there were 112 votes for cloture. The result is that we’re in a position now where having a majority in the Senate no longer allows one party to govern the way it used to. What was originally an extreme tool for keeping the views of the minority from being entirely overlooked, has now turned into a massive roadblock to getting legislation passed.

Since each Senator and each Representative is a law unto himself (the state and national parites have very little influence on the nomination process and ea h legislator runs his own machine), there has never been before this a unanimous party position on anything that was binding on the members. This is a brand-new phenomenum. The Republicans have decided that, as a party, they will oppose Obama on nearly everything. And woe betide a mamber who does not follow along. This is the meaning of that election in NY State in which a moderate was defeated by an extreme right candidate who proceeded to lose the general election. But make no mistake. It was a victory for the extreme right. They won the primary and that was their goal. One more seat in the house was pretty near meaningless but as an object lesson to any moderates who remain the Republican party.

Many years ago (over 50), I took a polisci course in college and the professsor, who had recently come from Oregon as a PhD student of Richard Neuberger, told us that for any political group, winning the primary was the first goal. For one thing, any patronage that came to that party would pass through the primary winner even if he lost the general election.

How will this play out? Hard to say, but here is one possible scenario. The president of the Senate could simply rule that unlimited debate was out of order. Ironically, the president of the Senate is Joe Biden who is a one-man unlimited debate. This was threatened (they called it the nuclrea option) when a number of Democrats threatened to filibuster to prevent John Roberts’s appointment to the Supreme Court. But some compromise was reached and Roberts was confirmed.

If this happened, all hell would break loose. The cibservative blogosphere would go into orbit and newspapers all over the country would editorialze about the loss of sacred tradition. I am unaware of a representative assembly anywhere in the world that lacks a mechanism whereby a majority can pass any law it likes. Yes, it might be declared unconstitutional, but that is another matter. Obviously the ruling would be appealed and then it would come down to whether more than ten Democrats would vote agains the chair. But I am sure that that would have been known beforehand. And the right to filibuster could disappear, poof, just like that. I suppose that there could be an appeal based on the constitutional right of each body to make its own rules. But it is not that this would be a case of the Senate not making its own rules. Very messy. It could not be kept secret (no more than the Republican plan was) The most likely outcome is that the Republican leadership, seeing the handwriting on the wall, would actually make a compromise to see the health plan pass.

In Canada (where I have lived over 40 years), the govenment in power determines completely how much debate is allowed on any bill and, in fact, how much the minority parties can speak in parliament. Virtually all voting is on straight party lines. The party leader must approve each candidate that runs under the party banner and and can and sometimes does replace a candidate by another of his choosing, not giving any reason. I think they could save a lot of money by choosing seats without filling them with actual people. Immobile robots (capable os signaling aye or nay) could fulfill all the functions of most MPs.

If you don’t want to spark a debate on the demerits of nationalizing the health care system then you would do well not to ascribe base motives to those who oppose it — especially since it is heavily disfavored by both Republicans and independents. Your argument would be with nearly 60% of the American public by last count. What would it benefit the Republicans to oppose a program if it was wildly popular? How would it discredit the president rather than the party in opposition? The populace on the whole has no interest in weakening their president or a particular party but they do have a vested interest in seeing to it that the government remains weak and constrained in its powers as it was meant to be.

The difficulty in increasing the size and power of the federal government is a feature and not a bug. Indeed it is the principle strength of the American system. I guess it could be argued that some of these hurdles could also keep measures from being passed to decrease the scope of government but the founders understood that the ratchet turns mainly towards tyranny and away from liberty in any government and tried to plan accordingly.

Indeed, the main purpose of the Constitution was to limit the use of force and coercion against its citizenry. Whatever your stance on the issue you brought up, very few proposals involve more force and coercion than a national system of health care where all decisions are made by a central authority and all resources are distributed at the whim of politicians, apparatchiks and bureaucrats. One may think the expense of liberty, blood and treasure to be worth it but the founders of the country have set the hurdle rather high for that attitude to prevail. A situation where any complex and divisive issue is forced through without anyone being able to tell you what is in the bill and with the opposition having literally been locked out of the room during the formulation of the bill is exactly the sort of thing the Constitution was meant to at least make difficult if not prevent outright. The process is meant to be arduous, slow and deliberative with plenty of chances to recant or seek further input. This hardly seems unreasonable when the sole business of government is deciding how much force can legitimately use against his neighbor.

Another check and balance not mentioned in the OP is the Supreme Court. With health care “reform” there is a good chance that at least part of it will be rejected as unconstitutional. For instance the commerce clause has more or less been gutted but it is doubtful that even in its weakened state it can be contorted to allow citizens to be forced into buying health insurance on penalty of imprisonment for the offense of simply living and drawing breath. States are another matter and are limited by their own constitutions which may be more or less restrictive in a given case. I believe Massachusetts has such a provision in its state health care plan so either its constitution allows it or its justices do. States also have some means of challenging anything that is passed at the federal level but not so much as they were intended to have under the original system.

In short, when presidents or parties don’t try to do things seen as being radical or utterly foolish by large parts of the electorate and when they don’t overstep their power in an unconstitutional manner they do not have nearly so much trouble getting their programs passed. Reasonable ideas tend to get a reasonable response. When they attempt to do such things as overturn some of the basic foundational principles of limited government on which our social compact is based and when they act in opposition to the will of the people then they have a hard time indeed. This is as it should be.

I’m not trying to pick a fight with anyone - it makes no difference to me whether you reform your healthcare or not. But passing a healthcare bill was Obama’s primary domestic objective: if he succeeds it’ll be a huge boon for him, if he fails outright then I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say it could cripple his entire term. Republicans know that, and while they do have good arguments against healthcare reform, I think you’d be naive to imagine that defeating Obama and burying his political capital do not feature prominently in their thoughts.

As it happens the Republicans don’t have enough votes to affect the reform alone so my question is hypothetical: but if they did, or if the Democrats did over a Republic President, I was wondering why they would ever decide not to ruin his agenda if they disagreed with it and had the opportunity to do so.

This is of course as offensive as it is incorrect. If Obama were to propose shrinking the size of government, increasing personal liberty or decreasing the tax rate then he would have plenty of support. I would even support him.

But yeah Hari you are right. No one is opposed to Obama because he is a Marxist… no that isn’t possible. It isn’t possible that his ideas are so radical, so far outside the mainstream and so obviously foolish that there would be widespread opposition to him. It isn’t possible that the Republican party abandoned its principles of limited government and fiscal responsibility and thus lost much of its support which it is now trying to regain. It isn’t possible that Obama’s grandiose visions could bankrupt the nation even further than it already is and it scares the hell out of any sensible person. You believe all of this because the media tells you so.

No, it is simply not possible for there to be widespread opposition to the insane and destructive policies that you support. And you wonder why people are so infuriated?

The only thing unprecedented about the current political situation is that a party can have both houses of congress, the presidency and the media under its control and yet still have ideas that are so bad they can’t even get them brought to the floor for debate without bribing senators in their own party with taxpayer money.

All of this does not belong on this forum but when the government is invading every area of life there is no where to escape it and I do not intend to be silent as the Republic is assaulted no matter the forum and no matter the opposition. The least I can do is speak out against those who would make a serf of me and my descendants in the name of social justice or whatever moniker tyranny has chosen to don in its current incarnation.

You’re right, that’s clearly not possible, because if he were so far outside the mainstream, we’d be talking about President McCain right now.

Again you make a totally unfounded assumption that it would be a huge boon for Obama to get what he wants. If your kid wants to eat nothing but ice cream and spend all of your money on video games would it be a boon to him? Would it not be equally likely that Obama’s presidency would be more of a failure were he to pass a bill that is widely despised and, for sake of this argument, an obvious failure? Jimmy Carter certainly did not benefit from his gas rationing plan being implemented… nor did the country. Just because the partisan media would laud Obama he would not be insulated from the wrath of the public. Would it not inflame the opposition to go out and vote in even larger numbers to repeal it?

I guess maybe the difference in how we are looking at this is definitional. If you define getting a president’s plan passed as success for him regardless of the consequences then you might be right. If you have any more objective definition of a successful presidency then I don’t think you would be correct in how you have phrased things…

But separate from that look at your last question… to paraphrase… why would the opposition ever decide not to ruin a president’s agenda if they disagreed with it? Why indeed. That is the whole point of the exercise is it not? You vote your principles and those of your constituents by proxy. Sometimes those align along party lines on fundamental issues. Sometimes they do not on more minor issues or where there is more agreement.

The system is made to work on consensus and to keep policies from swinging back and forth too quickly. It is also designed to protect the rights of the minority by providing a means of slowing things down or stopping ideas that are anathema to significant portions of the population that may be less than a majority. The bias in the system is towards inaction because government was seen by the founders as a necessary evil that was to be heavily restrained. Again, when you are trying to decide how much force one group can use against another (which is the definition of government at its base) it was thought to be best to act slowly and deliberately if at all. The other advantage is that people and businesses can plan ahead with some sense of assurance that the rules of the game will not change.

I don’t know if any of this has helped but you picked a hot button issue where the rules of the game are being stressed to their max.

To answer the OP: Compromise, finding common ground, horse-trading, pork, moral appeals, threats, bipartisanship, party unity, arm-twisting, fear of political payback. Some of these are more common than others nowadays, but all have their time and place on Capitol Hill.

Voluble- Come on, this is GQ not GD.

The Great Philosopher- Like Sage Rat mentioned, technically the President doesn’t have much control over Congress. He can twist arms, trade/call in favors, etc., but essentially passing bills is more the job of Congressional leadership.

The Senate is usually the more difficult to get a bill through. There’s the filibuster, of course, but senators can also put holds on things. Senators are also tougher to rein in, representing more people and having more prestige than than the House.

The House is ‘relatively’ easy to get a bill through when you’re the majority; just get a bill that the caucus can get behind. In practice, crafting and getting through compromises is tricky, of course.