Come On, Man (And I Mean You, Mr. President)

The President issued his new budget last week (way late I may add) and it has me really scratching my head.  I just can’t understand for the life of me why he keeps negotiating so poorly.  Mr. President, I just have one thing to say, “Come on Man!”

In my career, I worked as a aide in Congress and as a lobbyist.  I have seen the sausage get made.  My mentors included some who worked for powerful members of Congress, like John Stennis.  The President’s negotiating strategy violates everything I know of how one should engage the Congress to promote a budget.

Denis McDonough, Chief of Staff to the President, I am just at a loss here.  I do not even see the next step let alone an end game.  There is no chance Republican leadership on either side of the House will accepting anything your boss submits.  I believe the Speaker already put the kabosh on it.  There is no way that this path will end up in a positive fashion for the White House.

Has a Continuing Resolution been in place so long that the White House has forgotten how to use the budget process to their advantage?  The White House and Senate have an extraordinary opportunity to gain the support of Republicans.  But not if the president keeps negotiating against himself and undercutting his Congressional allies.

The number one person the White House should trust to execute a strategy Senator Barbara Mikulski, Chairwoman of the Appropriations Committee.  Speaking from experience, I can assure you that the last thing you want to do is work at cross purposes with this Senator.  It is the kiss of death.

I am betting that after the president released his budget (and I hope to God he at least consulted with Congressional Democrats before hand) he got a call from Senator Mikulski.  It probably went something like this: “Mr. President, my clerk just gave me the key points of your budget.  Not only will I not support it, but all those administration initiatives, I am going to instruct my subcommittee chairs to zero out as many out as possible when they mark up there bills.  Click!”  The conversation between her clerk and White House staff was probably much worse.

Here is why appropriations bills are so important (besides being the actual legislation that funds the government), particularly in the Senate where earmarks are still allowed.  Each subcommittee, as it writes its own bill, crafts a document designed to get votes, at every step of consideration.  All politicians share at least one common instinct: survival.  Even Mitch McConnell needs to bring money home to his state. Leverage can and will extend to when the Senate and House merge all of their appropriations bills.  A process, I might add, that will not involve Paul Ryan.

Appropriations is where all the power resides.  Any president’s budget is generally torn apart when it arrives in the Congress.  But this budget had to infuriate members on a policy basis as well as political.

The White House has to learn that Senator Mikulski, and possibly Harold Rogers the House Chairman if the House ever allows earmarks again, has many times more power over the budget.

There is only one moment in presidential blunders that tops this one.  That is when Hamilton Jordan, then Chief of Staff to President Jimmy Carter, decided to put then Speaker of the House, Tip O’Neill, up in the third deck of the Kennedy Center during inaugural festivities.  It was the beginning of a horrible relationship with the Congress.

Mr. President, please use the budget process to your advantage.  Your allies in Congress can do your negotiations for you in a way that will be far more productive.

And in the end, you win.

Let Her Lead, Mr. President

Author: Robert Katula

What say you, the people?