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Will Close Ties With Congress Help Obama? Will Close Ties With Congress Help Obama?

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COVER STORY: TRANSITION

Will Close Ties With Congress Help Obama?

The incoming administration is turning to people who know how to get things done on Capitol Hill.

Already, Barack Obama is shaping the most Congress-ready administration in memory, and maybe ever. It starts at the top -- the president, vice president, and chief of staff are all moving directly from Capitol Hill -- and it is a virtual certainty that a whole raft of key positions, from Cabinet secretaries on down, will end up with tenants from the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue. The transition team, especially, is heavy with congressional expertise. Although the administration will probably be more diverse than the transition staff, the reliance on House and Senate aides at this point could help the White House get out of the gate in January without stumbling.

Or at least stumbling in familiar ways.

 

Obama's advisers are all too aware of the bad starts that befell the Carter and Clinton administrations. This isn't 1977 or 1993, of course, and Congress is far different, but dumb mistakes are still dumb mistakes, and the incoming president's men and women want to avoid them if they can.

John Podesta, who is one-third of the troika running the transition team, talked again this week at a briefing about how intent Obama is on getting his appointments selected and, where required, approved by the Senate as expeditiously as possible. The times, Podesta said, demand it. "And this is a process that will require the cooperation of both houses of Congress." So it only makes sense to draw on the advice of people who know how Congress works.

In the interests of alacrity, of course, it also makes sense to draw on people that the new White House team is familiar with, beginning with Obama's Senate staff and moving on to Sen. Joe Biden's, and so on outward from there. Additionally, Obama has effectively barred most lobbyists from working on the transition (at least in their fields of expertise) -- and that makes Congress the obvious place to go for recruits. The lobbyist rule, says Podesta, may be strengthened when it comes to filling jobs in the administration itself.

 

Is there a risk? There's always a risk. Although Podesta argues that the administration will be "more open and more transparent than ever before," it certainly won't want to get carried away by that thought. Staffing the administration with former members and congressional aides poses an obvious risk: Everyone in Congress will know someone personally in the White House, which could make it difficult for the Obama team to maintain discipline in its dealings with the legislative branch. "There could be a little bit -- or a lot -- of confusion," says Paul Light, a political scientist at New York University. But the Obama campaign, at least, was nothing if not disciplined.

It doesn't hurt that the chief of staff, Rep. Rahm Emanuel of Illinois, generally has a firm grip on what he wants to do and that he comes with White House experience (under President Clinton). "He is well suited to solve problems at both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue," Scott Lilly, a longtime House aide who is now at Podesta's Center for American Progress, wrote this week in a Los Angeles Times blog.

A key adviser during the campaign and the transition, and a likely member of the new administration, is Tom Daschle, the former Senate majority leader. "Daschle is an absolute expert on the organization of the Senate," Light says.

He also employed several aides who are working for Obama. Among them are Podesta, who was on Daschle's staff in the 1990s, and Pete Rouse, his former chief of staff, who became Sen. Obama's chief of staff when Daschle left the Senate and who is now co-chairman of the transition team along with Podesta and Valerie Jarrett.

 

A third Daschle veteran is Dan Pfeiffer, who is the communications director for the Obama transition team.

Other members of Obama's Senate staff on the transition team are Chris Lu, a Harvard Law School classmate who was named executive director, and Michael Strautmanis, director of public liaison and intergovernmental affairs. Another law school classmate is Cassandra Butts, the general counsel, who worked for former House Democratic Leader Dick Gephardt.

Phil Schiliro, in the key job of director of congressional relations, comes from the office of Rep. Henry Waxman of California. (Schiliro also once worked for Daschle.) Jim Messina, the transition's personnel director, was chief of staff for Sen. Max Baucus of Montana. Katy Kale, director of operations, moves over from the office of Sen. Sherrod Brown of Ohio. Stephanie Cutter, the transition's chief spokeswoman, worked for John Kerry's presidential campaign in 2004 and before that for Sen. Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts. Melody Barnes, co-director of agency review, was a longtime adviser to Kennedy. And Dan Tarullo, Obama's envoy to Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson Jr., also worked for Kennedy, although that was back in the 1980s.

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Biden's chief of staff, Mark Gitenstein, and his longtime former chief of staff, Ted Kaufman, are on the transition's advisory board and are likely to have roles on the vice president's staff. Former House Whip David Bonior of Michigan is a member of Obama's economic advisory group.

One further reason the transition team is so stocked with congressional staffers, Podesta says, is that the work has to be done in Washington; because it's temporary, it makes sense to tap into local resources. He says that the administration itself will reflect a broader selection, with new faces from the private and nonprofit sectors. Podesta says he's not interested in leaving his think tank. But no overlap? Not likely.

Plenty of other congressional veterans and staff people are being bandied about as possible administration hires. Sens. Chuck Hagel, Richard Lugar, and Jack Reed get mentioned for Cabinet positions, as does Kerry. New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, who had a career in the House before joining the Clinton administration, is on many lists. So is Gephardt. Some Latino advocates are pushing Rep. Nydia Velazquez of New York, Rep. Xavier Becerra of California, and Sen. Ken Salazar of Colorado. Rep. James Oberstar of Minnesota and Rep. Earl Blumenauer of Oregon are reportedly candidates for Transportation secretary. And it would be surprising if several staff members of Biden's Senate Foreign Relations Committee don't move into the executive branch.

It's worth pointing out that the two most likely candidates for Treasury secretary -- Timothy Geithner and Lawrence Summers -- do not come from Capitol Hill. Neither do those who have been suggested as possible second-level appointees at the Defense and Justice departments, although Obama's senior advisor to the Pentagon transition, Sam Nunn of Georgia, spent 24 years in the Senate and may have some former congressional folks in mind. Overall, it appears that the Obama administration will draw more heavily from Congress than its predecessors, including the senatorial duo of John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson in 1961.

There's no question that learning to work with Congress is generally a good idea. Abner Mikva, a former judge, White House adviser, and member of Congress, says that Clinton's idea of getting along with Congress was to call a few senators who agreed with him. He's sure that Obama won't make that mistake.

But are sound dealings with Congress sufficient? Mikva points out that Presidents George H.W. Bush and Ford were the only two chief executives he has known who got along with Congress -- and neither is altogether a great role model. In fact, a survey of 80 historians carried out a decade ago by C-SPAN found some interesting disparities between those who were considered adept at dealing with Congress and those who were successful presidents.

Lyndon Johnson: He had the best relations with Congress but was ranked only the 10th-best president. Ford: 12th at dealing with Congress, 23rd overall. Three Democrats who made the top 10 as successful presidents -- Woodrow Wilson, Harry Truman, and Kennedy -- were in the middle ranks in their relations with Congress. (Of course, Wilson and Truman both fought with the Republicans who held majorities in Congress for parts of their presidencies.)

And in Kennedy's time, the Senate was known as "an incubator of big ideas," the ideas that led to the New Frontier and the Great Society, Light says. "The Senate today can't incubate an egg, let alone a major bill."

This article appears in the November 15, 2008 edition of National Journal Magazine.

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