This is a guest post by Jeremy Gelman, Gilad Wilkenfeld and E. Scott Adler. It summaries their recent article “The Opportunistic President: How U.S. Presidents Determine Their Legislative Programs” that appeared in Legislative Studies Quarterly, August 2015.
In recent weeks, U.S. presidential candidates have begun staking out policy positions to distinguish themselves from their partisan rivals. The Republican candidates have focused a great deal on immigration and foreign policy while the Democrats have emphasized fixing the criminal justice system and relieving student debt. After the new president is inaugurated in 16 months, will his or her legislative agenda include any of these proposals? More generally, what issues should we expect the next president to bring before Congress?
In our recently published article, “The Opportunistic President: How U.S. Presidents Determine Their Legislative Programs” (Legislative Studies Quarterly, August 2015), we seek to answer what systematic factors shape the content of presidents’ legislative programs. We argue that presidents focus their agendas around reliable lawmaking opportunities, such as expiring government programs and publicly salient issues. In these cases, exogenous factors ensure that Congress will work on such policy areas anyway. Presidents use these opportunities as a way to enhance their influence in the lawmaking process, particularly by proposing their own solutions before Congress is able to act.
Our theory contrasts with conventional accounts of how chief executives’ determine their agendas. Others argue presidents select issues based on their campaign promises or expand their agendas’ scopes when they are popular or their party controls Congress.
We argue presidents rely on legislative opportunities for two reasons. First, by focusing on expiring programs and salient issues, presidents can gain more policy successes from their legislative programs. Working with Congress on topical challenges allows administrations to move policies closer to the presidents’ preferred positions. Second, there is a political dimension to this strategy. Since presidential effectiveness is often measured by how much action Congress takes on legislation he proposes, presidents can increases these potential credit-claiming opportunities by staking out positions on issues that Congress is obligated to consider.
To test our theory, as well as other claims regarding campaign promises, presidential approval, and Congress’s composition, we gathered data on every presidential legislative proposal sent to Congress from 1981 to 2008. Using information on expiring programs, public salience, campaign promises, and presidential approval, we examined the variation in the number of legislative requests presidents send to Congress in the 12 most active policy areas in U.S. politics.
As expected, presidents send Congress more legislative requests on policies in which a major program is expiring or are publicly salient. Considering presidential program size, our findings suggest that presidents consistently focus on expirations and salience when deciding their agenda. For instance, as a policy area moves from having few to many expiring programs, presidents increase the number of policy requests on that issue by a third. Similarly, as an issue becomes publicly salient, presidents nearly triple their legislative requests on that policy area.
We show these effects graphically by plotting the expected count of presidential legislative requests and changes in an issue’s salience or number of expiring programs.
Figure 1: Expiring Provisions and the Presidential Program
Figure 2: Issue Salience and the Presidential Program
While the substantive changes may seem small as expiring provisions or issue salience increase (a few more requests in a given policy area), across a dozen policy areas, the aggregate effect is large. A typical presidential agenda includes about 200 legislative requests. Our results suggest many of these proposals will be on topics that require reauthorization or are prominent in the public agenda, regardless of the president’s personal issue priorities.
Additionally, we do not find any consistent support for the campaign promises and presidential capital hypotheses. Presidents do not expand the scopes of their agendas when they are more popular or have a favorable Congress to work with. We find inconsistent evidence that presidents send more legislative requests on topics related to their campaign promises.
From a practical standpoint, our results help answer our initial questions. What issues will the new U.S. president focus on in 2017? While the candidates may be talking about immigration or student debt reform today, this does not necessarily mean these issues will be a priority in the new administration. The new president may follow-thru with a few campaign promises, but these policies do not compose the majority of the president’s legislative agenda.
No matter who wins office, it is very likely the new president will also request Congress renew the national flood insurance program and new funding for health centers. While not hot-button issues, these programs expire in 2017 and are likely to attract presidential attention. Assuming the issues related to race remain a salient issue for many Americans, the new president, regardless of party, will probably propose new legislation on that topic as well.
Our results suggest that even though the current presidential candidates vary in which issues they say they will prioritize in office, presidents’ base their attention to issues on a systematic, predictable pattern.
About the Authors
Jeremy Gelman is a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Political Science at the University of Michigan. His research interests focus on presidential and congressional behavior, inter-branch bargaining dynamics, and legislative agenda setting. Gelman’s dissertation examines how parties in Congress use their legislative agendas to electioneer by proposing bills that are intended to fail.
Gilad Wilkenfeld is a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Political Science at the University of Colorado Boulder. His research covers the US legislative process, the US Presidency, and inter-branch bargaining dynamics. Wilkenfeld’s dissertation examines the president’s role in shaping the policy content of legislation when using Statements of Administration Policy to influence congressional action. He has co-authored a chapter with John Wilkerson and Scott Adler in Congress and the Politics of Problem Solving (Cambridge University Press 2012) entitled “Problem Solving and the Dynamics of Policy Change.”
E. Scott Adler is Professor of Political Science at the University of Colorado Boulder. His expertise is the US Congress, elections, political institutions, and policymaking. Among his books are Why Congressional Reforms Fail: Reelection and the House Committee System(University of Chicago Press 2002) and The Macropolitics of Congress, co-edited with John Lapinski (Princeton University Press 2006). Adler’s most recent book, co-authored with John Wilkerson, is Congress and the Politics of Problem Solving (Cambridge University Press 2012).
 We used and extended Rudalevige’s (2002) data set on presidential proposals.