The U.S. Congress Under Trump vs. Obama

Sean Theriault (University of Texas at Austin, Department of Government) is fascinated by congressional decision-making and is currently researching the effect of interpersonal relationships within the U.S. Congress. In view of the upcoming event at Sciences Po, Emiliano Grossman (Sciences Po, CEE) and Jen Schradie (Sciences Po, OSC)  asked for his opinion on recent developments in American politics.

Compare passing legislation in the Obama versus Trump presidencies. Is it more than a question of who controls the House or Senate?

While it certainly matters which party controls the House and Senate, the leadership style of the president matters, too. Neither Trump nor Obama were particularly good at bringing Congress along with their policy solutions. Obama, I think, because he didn’t enjoy the back and forth of negotiation with Congress, and Trump because he is unwilling to engage Democrats. They both prefer the unilateral powers of the president.  Unfortunately for them, as we’ve witnessed with the transition from Obama to Trump, those directives only last until a new president takes the Oath of Office and can then change them.  Much of the Obama presidency has been undone because it was accomplished through executive actions rather than legislation.

How and why has polarisation within Congress increased recently? How does this influence lawmaking?

I wrote a whole book, called Party Polarization in Congress, on that issue. Changes in both the electoral and legislative environments have changed. Increasingly, members of Congress come from districts in which their presidential candidates do well. This is a relatively recent phenomenon in the United States.  As members face less cross-pressure between doing what their constituents want them to do and what their party leaders want them to do, party leadership has grown increasingly powerful.  These dual trends interact with each other, which exacerbates polarisation.

How does the current impeachment process compare to previous attempts?

Impeachment is a relatively rare phenomenon, so it is difficult to generalise too much.  While the paths to impeachment have varied, the Constitutional requirements remain the same — a majority vote in the House to impeach and a two-thirds vote in the Senate to remove from power.  These dictates allow for some flexibility in the earlier processes, but as the process plays out, it will look increasingly similar to previous attempts.

Much attention has been paid to a conservative surge in the U.S., with Trump as the prime example, but what does the election of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Ilhan Omar to Congress, as well as Bernie Sanders' popularity say about the rise of the far left?

I’m not sure I would say that there was a conservative surge.  I think it is more accurately described as a populist surge, which encompasses both the rise of Trump and those on the left.  As the media landscape has changed, populists — both those in elective office and those who vote for them — have access to a bigger stage and a louder microphone. The rise is inconsistent with the nuances of the legislative process and the idea of cooperation and compromise.

The Centre for European Studies and Comparative Politics (CEE) is pleased to welcome Prof. Sean Theriault for a conference on "The US Congress in the Age of Trump" on Monday, 2 December 2019 at 5pm. Register here.

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