Debate Club

Obama Has Done Better Working With the Senate Than the House


In their desire to layer accountability in government, the framers of the Constitution created a bicameral legislative system along with separate branches of government. While this symmetry structures the stunning architecture of Capitol Hill, it can also create political havoc. President Obama's political task since the 2010 elections has been to navigate differences between the two chambers and across Pennsylvania Avenue.

In particular, the differences between the chambers are telling. According to Congressional Quarterly presidential "support" scores, in 2010, 40 percent of Republicans in the Senate took a position that agreed with the president's stated position. In 2011, that number rose to 53 percent. This increasing congruence was driven by moderate senators, Olympia Snowe (Maine), Scott Brown (Massachusetts), and Lisa Murkowski (Alaska), but was buttressed by sometime conservative senators, Lamar Alexander (Tennessee), Lindsey Graham (South Carolina), and Mark Kirk (Illinois).

In contrast, President Obama had the lowest percentage of support from an opposition party (in this case, Republicans) in the House since Bill Clinton in 1994. In 2011, only 22 percent of Republicans took a position that was the same as the position that the president took. The deadlocked arrangement over the current government "sequester" demonstrates the lack of contiguous agreement between the House Republicans and the White House.

[Check out our editorial cartoons on President Obama.]

Perhaps these figures suggest that the president is yielding to moderates in the Senate or perhaps these moderates are more likely to agree with the president's policy position to garner movement on policy. In either case, the evidence shows that the White House has done a better job navigating the Senate, where compromise is still possible, than in the House, where the rank and file Republicans have strategically restricted the ability of their leadership to negotiate.

This arrangement suggests potential for future leveraged leadership from the White House in the Senate but not the House. Although consensus is far from certain, there appears to be some room for negotiation with the upper chamber. Pressuring the Senate to initiate legislation on immigration, tax reform or dealing with the "sequester" may yield dividends for the president. This is certainly likely to be more fruitful for the White House than working through the House.

Brandon Rottinghaus

About Brandon Rottinghaus Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Houston

Republican Party
House of Representatives
Obama, Barack
Democratic Party

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