Separation of Powers: All Eyes Are on Obama, But It's Congress That Needs to Seize the Day

| Thu Jan. 22, 2009 2:57 AM EST

Now that the euphoria of the election and inauguration are over, we will soon be reminded of the messy realities that come with having three branches of government. As much as the nation is pinning its desperate hopes on Obama, the new president's success or failure at advancing new policies and changing the way government works depends first and foremost on Congress.

The burning questions of the moment have to do with money--how much to spend, and when, and for what. The president will present his stimulus package to Congess, but it is just a recommendation: All spending measures must originate in the House through the Ways and Means Committee. While they receive none of the attention given to cabinet members, the leaders of this powerful committee are no less important than the secretary of the Treasury, or the other members of the administration who must go to it pleading for funds.

Right now Ways and Means is chaired by New York's Charles Rangel, still a formidable figure despite a growing collection of ethics scandals. In the front tier are Pete Stark of California, Sander Levin of Michigan, Jim McDermott of Washington, and John Lewis of Georgia. It's a solidly liberal lineup (most are members of the Congressional Progressive Caucus) that is likely to support big public works and jobs programs as well as improvements to the social safety net for the poor and the unemployed, the disabled and the elderly.

On the other side is the group of conservative Democrats in the House that calls itself the Blue Dogs. Their numbers and influence have increased in the last two elections, and they have already made it clear that in exchange for gritting their teeth and accepting a big stimulus package funded through Keynesian deficit spending, they'll be looking for concessions over the long term in other areas, including old-age entitlements. With 51 members, the Blue Dogs could monkey-wrench some of Obama's plans if they choose to vote with Republicans.

We learned just how far an uncooperative Congress can go to undermine a president back in 1994, when Newt Gingrich's Republican revolution emerged from the back benches and dedicated itself to opposing (and eventually impeaching) Bill Clinton. But it's been such a long time since we've had a strong, popular Democratic president along with a solid Democratic majority in Congress, it's hard to envision what it might be like.

Those of us old enough to remember them might harken back to the LBJ years. On the day of Obama's inauguration, Saul Friedman, the longtime reporter for major dailies and now a columnist, recalled that time, and the vital part played by a strong, committed Congress.

The murder of John F. Kennedy had given Johnson great power and new stature when I arrived in Washington in 1965 to cover the Congress for the Knight Newspapers and the Detroit Free Press....They were an odd couple; Johnson the southerner who grew up with segregation and Humphrey, the northern liberal who had driven Strom Thurmond out of the Democratic Party on the issue of race. But together, they gave the country activist, liberal government the like of which had not been seen since the New Deal.

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But...they did it with the help of a Congress, especially the Senate, filled with people who I believe were deeply committed to politics as public service. Many of them had come from service in World War II into reform politics. And like several of the Vietnam and Iraq veterans now serving, they came to make a difference.

The "names who personified what was best in American politics at that time were in the U.S. Senate," Friedman writes. These included Humphrey's fellow Minnesotans Walter Mondale and Eugene McCarthy; Michigan's Philip A. Hart, who was called "the conscience of the Senate'; Wayne Morse, William Fulbright, and George McGovern, who all stood up against the Vietnam War; Frank Church, who would expose the abuses of the FBI and CIA; and Sam Ervin, who would help expose Watergate; as well as Bobby Kennedy and Ted Kennedy.

The Republicans, Friedman notes, "also included people of stature who believed in politics as public service." There were also some "louts and know-nothings," and some rabid segregationists. Nonetheless, he writes,

When the time came, and Johnson wheeled and dealed and appealed to their better nature, Republicans helped Democrats break southern filibusters and to pass a series of landmark civil rights bills, as well as the gems of the Great Society, Medicare and Medicaid and the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, all of which stand today.

Friedman wonders how the new president will fare with a Congress that too often seems, by comparison, weak-willed and churlish. (In this light, the tragedy of Ted Kennedy's illness becomes all the more profound.) Will Congressional Democrats, who have accomplished little since winning their majorities in 2006, heed the new president's call to pick themselves up, dust themselves off, and "begin the work of remaking America"? We'll know soon enough.