When the President Speaks...

Obama and House Republicans-Saul Loeb AFP.jpg

Once a week during his presidency, members of the Republican congressional leadership gathered in the White House Cabinet Room to meet with Ronald Reagan and key members of his administration. Less frequently but still relatively often, Reagan included the Congress's Democratic leaders as well. Discussions were wide-ranging and candid. The President did not stand at a lectern, there was no presidential seal; the President did not use the occasion to promote his agenda. Instead, he sat at the table with us; he talked and we talked and we listened to each other. Same thing when the Democrats--the opposition--sat at the table with us.

Don't be misled: this was not a bygone time of sweetness and light and it was not a time of namby-pamby legislatures. When Reagan proposed legislation we congressional Republicans opposed, we told him so--and we voted against him. Later, when Reagan's successor, George H. W. Bush, another Republican, announced in a White House meeting that he had decided to drive Saddam Hussein's army out of Kuwait, Republican congressional leaders, myself included, told him we would support the effort only if the Congress first gave its approval; if he failed to get congressional authorization, we said, we would oppose him. All of this seated around a table. Afterward, we would talk to reporters on the White House lawn and if we and the President were not on the same page, we would say so in whatever terms best conveyed our positions.

Every year, the President would come to our house--The House--because the Constitution required that he report to us. There was pomp, to be sure, but the President had not come down to scold and lecture his subordinates; he came because he had to report in. The Constitution also instructed him to suggest laws he might think appropriate; it was up to the Congress to decide whether to do anything about those suggestions. On the occasion of those annual visits, partisan divides having been with us even then, presidential commentary was greeted in various ways, cheers from some, moans and groans and laughter (at, not with) from others. It had never crossed our minds that it was somehow inappropriate for one of us in the audience to whisper to a colleague that the President's observations did not comport with our own understanding of the facts.

This is not a column about Barack Obama. There has developed over time, in the White House (regardless of who is President), among members of the press, and even, inexplicably, among some members of Congress, a belief that (a) whoever is President is thereby the head of government, rather than the head of one of three co-equal branches, and (b) that one must not express dismay, surprise, or disagreement with his remarks, even in near-silent whispers, whilst the eminent leader speaks. What next: robes of ermine, bowing as he enters the room? (Just to be clear, Congressman Joe Wilson's unwhispered "you lie," aimed at the President during an earlier speech, was clearly out of bounds; but that was because one is not permitted such comment on the House floor, even when aimed toward a congressional colleague; its inappropriateness was because of where it was, not because it was directed toward the President.)

David Brooks noted on the PBS News Hour after the President's visit with congressional Republicans (it was not his initiative; it was theirs; they invited him) that it had been set up with the President at a lectern with a fixed microphone, while his hosts rose to stand before him, portable microphone in hand, clearly now the supplicants seeking a bit of attention, even a pat on the head to assure them that yes, he had noticed that they did, in fact, have some ideas and he would certainly look them over.

Here is what's wrong with that. The American system of government is predicated on the retention of major power in the hands of the peoples' chosen representatives. In the earlier days of the Republic, it was understood that this legislative role--the final say over taxes, spending, wars, treaties, appointments--was central to the checks and balances of a system of deliberately separated powers. Early battles were centered on attempts to retain some degree of significant authority in the presidency. Times have changed and it may be necessary today to have a stronger Executive than was envisioned when the Constitution was written. But the President is still not the head of government and he is still not a Principal charged with keeping the student body in line: a President is the head of one branch of government and it is the job of the Congress--the constitutional obligation of Congress--to keep a check on him, not to fawn.

Photo credit: Saul Loeb/AFP-Getty Images