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Clinton's Problems With Congress--as Old as the Constitution : Separation of powers ensures tension between executive, legislative branches. Today, challenges are more daunting.

June 01, 1993|ROBERT SHOGAN | TIMES POLITICAL WRITER

WASHINGTON — "I've watched the Congress, man and boy for 40 years," Lyndon B. Johnson once recalled when he was at the peak of his presidential powers. "And I've never yet seen a Congress that didn't ultimately take the measure of the President it was dealing with."

Four months after taking office, President Clinton has already had more trouble with Congress than he bargained for. His wobbly start in office turned last week's struggle over his economic plan in the House of Representatives into a do-or-die drama in which, his backers asserted, the future of Clinton's presidency hung in the balance.

Despite his narrow victory in the heavily Democratic House, Clinton's ambitious agenda for change faces more tough sledding on Capitol Hill unless he can do a better job of overcoming impediments, alluded to by Lyndon Johnson, that were designed into the U.S. government two centuries ago and have frustrated presidents ever since.

For openers, consider the separation of powers written into the Constitution by framer James Madison. This provision assures that the executive and legislative branches will almost always be at each other's throat, even when, as in Clinton's case, the same party controls both branches.

The genius of Madison's system of checks and balances, devised to prevent the abuse of political power, is that its effectiveness is derived from the tendency of politicians to promote their own interests.

"Ambition must be made to counteract ambition," Madison wrote of the relationship between the Congress and the President. "The interest of the man must be connected with the constitutional rights of the place."

That system has worked so well that it hamstrung Madison himself when he became President, moving him to complain to his colleague Thomas Jefferson that the rebellious Congress he faced had become "unhinged."

Clinton has had ample reason to feel the same way about the 103rd Congress. He suffered a major defeat in April when a filibuster by the outnumbered Republicans in the Senate doomed his plan to provide immediate stimulus to the economy.

He then had to bargain frantically with members of the nominal Democrat majority in the House to pass a compromised version of his budget, and now must look ahead to an even tougher struggle in the Senate.

Though the Madisonian barriers have frustrated presidents since the birth of the Republic, the challenges facing chief executives have become even more formidable in recent years. Not only are they now held responsible for solving more problems, such as the ebb and flow of the economy, but they have a harder time mustering support because of the fragmentation of society.

One unrelenting headache: the rise of special interest groups with potent resources and single-minded agendas, inspiring allegiances that often overshadow the tenuous ties of party loyalty.

"There are far more economic interest groups defined in more different ways than we have ever had before," points out presidential scholar Alonzo Hamby of Ohio University. "You can't even begin to encompass it by saying, 'business, labor and agriculture.' "

Thus as he struggles to get his budget through Congress, Clinton has to fight on two fronts. On one hand, he must deal with the opposition of oil-state lawmakers, notably Democratic Sen. David L. Boren of Oklahoma, to his proposal for an energy tax. And on the other hand, he must take into account the resistance of senior citizens and other influential constituencies to proposals by some in Congress for cutting into Medicare and Social Security benefits.

Yet while such concessions may be necessary to avoid the gridlock Clinton pledged to vanquish, experience suggests that giving ground leads to more demands.

"When you have all these interest groups out there, they figure that this is a guy who can get rolled and will change his position," warned University of Texas political scientist Walter Dean Burnham. "And so the President's room for maneuver is severely limited."

And in addition to economic competition, Clinton has to contend with rivalries among racial, ethnic, religious and cultural interests that neither the Founding Fathers nor all but his most recent predecessors ever dreamed of.

"Nobody knew what percentage of the gay vote (Franklin D.) Roosevelt or (Harry S.) Truman got because no one measured things that way," Hamby said. But gays made a recognizably significant contribution to Clinton's election, and his efforts to keep a campaign promise to allow gays to serve in the military have consumed political capital that could have been used to push his economic proposals.

"For a President to succeed you need a crisis that is acute enough so that interest groups are paralyzed, like in 1933," Burnham said. That is when Franklin Roosevelt took over the presidency, launched the New Deal in the midst of the Great Depression and in the process created the modern presidency with all its potential for accomplishment and frustration.

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