printable banner

U.S. Department of State - Great Seal

U.S. Department of State

Diplomacy in Action

A Retrospective on House Midterm Elections

FPC Briefing
Dr. Fred Beuttler
Deputy House Historian, U.S. House of Representatives, Office of the Historian
Foreign Press Center
Washington, DC
October 12, 2010


Date: 10/12/2010 Location: Washington, DC Description: Dr. Fred Beuttler, Deputy House Historian, United States House of Representatives, Office of the Historian, briefing at the Washington Foreign Press Center on ''A Retrospective on House Midterm Elections'' - State Dept Image

Video

2:00 P.M., EDT

MODERATOR: Good afternoon, and welcome to the Washington Foreign Press Center. We are pleased and privileged have Dr. Fred Beuttler with us today. He is the house historian of the United States House of Representatives.

I would ask you, first, before the briefing, if you’d go ahead and turn off your cell phones. And this is also an on-the-record briefing.

Dr. Beuttler will be discussing the House midterm elections, and he’s going to talk about it in a historical context. You may have been hearing a lot on the news about the unpopularity of the House, how they’re all going to get thrown out. Well, this is not a new phenomenon in American history. So he’ll be able to shed a little bit of light on that for you.

Afterwards, he’s going to talk about 10 or 15 minutes, and then we’ll do a question-and-answer session. And I would ask that you wait until you have a microphone in your hand before you ask your question, and to clearly state your name and your organization for the record.

So without further ado, I’m very pleased to give the microphone over to Dr. Fred Beuttler. Thank you.

DR. BEUTTLER: Well, good afternoon. As Alison said, I’m Fred Beuttler, acting as the historian of the House. I am deputy historian of the House of Representatives. I’ve been there for five years, so I’ve seen a little bit. But I’ve also been a student of American history for a number of years. And since you are all journalists and you’re used to asking questions, I’m going to spend quite a bit of time in allowing you to have as much time as possible for questions.

And one of the things – I wanted to say a few things about the office of the historian. First, we are a nonpartisan office, involved in the history and – the history and practice of the House. And it’s part of our job to explain the institutions, so I will not be speaking from a Republican perspective or a Democratic perspective, but rather from the perspective of the House of Representatives itself.

Now, I am a historian. And one of the things historians do is they situate events in place and time. And I’m going to talk a little bit about time issues because we tell time differently in the United States – political time. But I wanted to ask you, since you get to ask questions of politicians and speakers, I was going to ask you a question. This is one of the things I have to do and one of my privileges of my job is to explain the history of the House of Representatives to members and staff and the general public. And I usually will start out with this question, and this is one I want you to answer: Why is the Capitol on Capitol Hill? (Laughter.)

Wow, okay. Question – do you have an idea of what it is, why it’s on Capitol Hill?

QUESTION: I don’t know.

DR. BUETTLER: You don’t know. Okay. You’re at least more honest than some of the congressional staff that I speak to, because they look and ask me – you know, they give a few answers and they don’t quite understand. This is something that indeed even members of the House staff don’t quite understand it, even though they work in those buildings every day. What does it mean that the Capitol is on Capitol Hill? It is the most prominent place, and when George Washington is laying out the city in 1793, he wants to put the most important building on the highest place. I would argue that the Capitol is on Capitol Hill because it’s the symbolic representation of Article I in the Constitution. Remember Article I, Section I: All legislative power is vested in a Congress, the House and Senate.

Think about what it would mean symbolically if the most important, the most prominent building in the United States, on the highest place in the capital city, within Washington, think about what that would symbolize if that was the White House, or the Executive Mansion, up on that hill.

So I want you to start thinking, and I need your help in this because your job is in some ways similar to mine in that we are explaining how this political system works, to our various audiences. We’re explaining this. And I want your help in explaining the – how the Constitution operates, that Article I, half the Constitution is on Congress. And a very small part of it is on the presidency. And you want to think about that.

One of the things, I talk to a lot of teachers and educators. And in the United States, almost every child in high school has to take American history, usually a year, and American government. And I used to teach American history and government, and I also used to teach teachers. And if you look at the narrative, the story that is told in American history, it’s almost always from the perspective of the executive branch, a history of presidents. If you look at how American government, civics, is taught, it’s almost always from the perspective of the judiciary, of the Supreme Court interpretation of the Constitution. But I want your help in thinking, what would American history and government look like from the perspective of what the founders considered the first branch of government?

So I want you to think in that way. Let’s start thinking from the perspective of Capitol Hill, because that’s what the founders intended. Now you’ve understood space, right, of how Washington is laid out? And I probably should push you a little bit and wonder why the National Press Club is down here, rather than where the real action happens up on Capitol Hill. Okay, maybe you think it’s down on 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, but it’s really up in the Capitol.

Now, I’m going to ask you another question. All right? And this one, you may know the answer to it. And you’ve got this question, right? Now you know why – every time you look and see the Capitol, you understand it’s the symbolic representation of popular sovereignty, the dominance of the legislative branch.

Now, let’s ask you another question. We’ve looked at space; now, let’s look at time. How long does the president serve? How long? How long does the president serve?

QUESTION: Four years?

DR. BEUTTLER: Al right. I asked your help, right? I asked your help to start thinking about this American history and American government in terms from Capitol Hill. Okay? So I’ll ask that question again. How long does the president serve?

QUESTION: Four years?

DR. BEUTTLER: All right, again. Let’s ask the question again. How long does the president serve?

QUESTION: Four years.

DR. BEUTTLER: Al right, we’re getting the same answer. (Laughter.) Yeah.

QUESTION: And he’s lucky, he gets two.

DR. BEUTTLER: What?

QUESTION: If he’s lucky, he gets two.

DR. BEUTTLER: Okay, let’s go. Let’s see if we can understand one of the most basic elements of American political time. We talked about space and how the Capitol’s laid out. Let’s talk about time. You had a – you had an answer?

QUESTION (Inaudible.)

DR. BEUTTLER: Very good. A president serves for two congresses. Or, if he’s reelected, he serves for four. Okay, so what does that mean? A congressman serves for one congress. A president serves for two congresses. A senator serves for three congresses. And if a president is reelected, they get to serve for four Congresses. That’s the aspect of political time that you want to really think about and get in your head. It’s something that we’d often – often think about, but I want you to sort of start assuming this. That means even numbered years are quite a bit different than odd numbered years. As we all know, we’re three weeks out from a presidential – or a midterm election.

And a couple things that you want to know about Congress, and we’ll talk a little bit further. But this gives you an example. I’m a historian. And one of the things I like to do is I like to spend a lot of time in anniversaries and commemorations. One of the things we’re working on in our office is developing materials looking at the congressional and presidential war power, because 20 years ago, another midterm election took place, in the context of the Persian Gulf crisis, when Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait. And we’re looking the relation between executive and legislative power in that aspect.

Another thing that I’m all excited about, and this – you may not be. But this is the hundred and fiftieth anniversary of the campaign in 1860 that Abraham Lincoln was. And also coming up to the Civil War, the hundred and fifty year anniversary of the American Civil War. And I spend a lot of time – and a hobby and everything else.

But once I came up here, I looked at quite a bit of American history and American historians. And they’re convinced that the Battle of Gettysburg is a very significant battle. In fact, some of them will even call it the turning point in the American Civil War. And I looked at it and it’s like, well, of course it’s not. It can’t be. Why? Because it took place in an odd numbered year. It was 1863 in the summer. Far more significant was the Battle of Antietam that took place not very far from here in September 1862. It’s a very important battle, but more significantly, it took place about six weeks before the midterm election in 1862.

And you want to think about how political time operates because if the North had lost the Battle of Antietam in September of 1862, President Lincoln would have lost an enormous number of seats from his party in the House of Representatives, and thus probably would not have been able to continue the Civil War.

And if we start thinking in those terms, how the American election cycle works in its relation to who gets to set the national agenda, who sets the agenda, is it the House? Is it the Senate? Is it the White House? And you want to see the American political system as a congressional-presidential system, not a with what many of you are familiar with, the parliamentary system. You realize there is a constant struggle back and forth between White House, House, and Senate as to which branch will set the legislative agenda.

And this is not something that is not based on party, Democrat or Republican or who is ever in charge, but rather, it’s based structurally on how Congress operates, how the House works, how the Senate works, and how the president works. And if you start to think that, wait a second, the House is brand new every two years. Every two years, those members in the House have to run again. If you understand that and you realize that every two years, only a third of the Senate has to run again. The Senate’s always existed, since 1789. The House is brand new every two years. And this dynamic sets up a very unique aspect of the American political system.

And I want you to have a sense to understand because we are three weeks out from a midterm election. There have been attempts to change the system, but this is what the founders intended, a chance to have the parties that are within the House, the parties that are within the Senate, and the president all work out this area of negotiation as to who is the primary driver of the legislative agenda on specific issues. We’ve watched it change.

And maybe at this point, I’ll open it up for questions. I’ve spoken for a few minutes, setting up issues of space and time. But I want us to have a sense that the American political system is structured this way by the intent of the founders. And it sets up some very interesting dynamic. And I’ll add to, in response to some of your questions as we go further in our discussions this afternoon.

MODERATOR: Thank you very much. And Dr. Beuttler is happy to recognize you, but I would just ask you if you’d please remember when you have the microphone, state your name clearly and also the name of your organization. So, questions?

DR. BEUTTLER: Okay, maybe the woman in the front and then the back.

QUESTION: Thank you. My name is Sonia Schott with Globovision Venezuela. I was wondering if you can make some comments on the financing issue, considering President Obama, him talking about a lot and questioning some sectors about the financing. How is the perspective from your point of view? Thank you.

DR. BEUTTLER: Okay. Campaign finance issues is what you’re describing or asking? Questions about campaign finance issues? One of the things is I will reserve the right to not answer certain questions if they’re very close and seen as political. And I think one of the things you’re referring to are some of the questions raised about the sources of some of the funding that have taken place, and that was a big issue over the weekend. But that is – I would want to say that that’s a little more partisan than I would want to sort of venture in on, if that’s okay.

QUESTION: (Inaudible) historical point of view?

DR. BEUTTLER: Okay, the historical point of view, that I can do. (Laughter.) That I can do. And one of the things that’s interesting on campaign finance, you do have – and maybe I’ll suggest it this way, because you want to understand how it operates. And I’m going to give you a structural and historical answer.

The House of Representatives has evolved over its history. It’s not in the Constitution as much but rather the kind of unwritten form of how the House is developed to be a very strong majoritarian body. In the House, if you have 218 votes, you can pretty much do whatever you want. That’s how the House rules. That’s how it operates. Majority rule.

And so, often times, what you’ll have is positions in legislation in the House that will start either from the left or from the right, pretty strong positions on campaign finance reform, for example. And they will slowly be pulled to the center. That’s not how the Senate operates. The Senate operates by that rule that you pretty much need a supermajority or unanimous consent to get anything done. And so, because of that, what you will have is senators from opposite poles, left and right, meeting in the center to craft legislation, more of a compromise than the more partisan issues that takes place within the House.

What do I mean? One of the key laws that is regulating campaign finance reform is known by the names of its two senators that are co-sponsors, McCain-Feingold, John McCain and Russ Feingold. Those are not primarily centrists but rather more on the wings of their parties. And you notice that compromise legislation came together with those two members in the Senate. The House operates either coming from the left or coming from the right, and trying to, as much as you can, to stay either from left wing or right wing. The Senate, because of its rules internally, is forced to operate much more of a body of compromise. And so that’s probably as far as I want to go with that on specific issues of the amount of money and the sources of its money.

But those are issues – one of the main issues is transparency when that comes in, but that gives you a background on the – how the House and Senate approaches campaign legislation, finance legislation.

She in the back, and then you two gentlemen.

QUESTION: Thank you. Mina Al-Oraibi, Arshaq Al-Awsat* Arabic language paper. I wanted to ask you, historically, it’s always been said that the incumbent party loses out in the first elections, and also it is often seen as a referendum on the presidency. So, one, would you agree that it’s often seen as a referendum on how the president’s done? And also, if you – I know 2002 is a famous example of when that didn’t happen. Could you refer to other historical instances? And finally, just linking in from that, if you lose the House but maintain the Senate, how does that usually, historically, affect the president? Thank you.

DR. BEUTTLER: Okay. Okay, that’s a very good series of questions. And remind me on the first one, you’re giving – you had three there. So remind me on the first one.

QUESTION So – well, I’m not sure of the –

DR. BEUTTLER: Okay, right.

PARTICIPANT: -- sequence but, you know, historically, that the president – it’s seen as a referendum on the president, how the party of the president does during the elections. Would you consider it that way? And also, if he loses the House.

DR. BEUTTLER: Right. Very good questions. And that was one of the things I want you to understand about the dynamic of a president serving for two Congresses and then possibly four Congresses, because that is very clearly a referendum on the president’s party. And historically, it is almost always the case in the last century, even more than that, that the president’s party normally loses some seats in the House of Representatives in that midterm election.

One of the things that you as – well, a number of journalists were talking about two years ago in 2008 is this part of the dynamic that you want to consider. This was right after the Lehman Brothers collapse and AIG and everything else. And a number of journalists and commentators were saying, given the amount of money spent on the TARP program in September, that the president wasn’t going to have too much flexibility, and maybe they should be incremental, whichever it is, Mr. Obama or Mr. McCain, in 2009. And any historian would look back and say, well, that’s – no, you can’t do that. In fact, that everyone knows that the most productive time that a president will have is right their first year of their first Congress. That is the absolute most productive time that you have. You’ve got maybe that 15 months, perhaps, to get as much as your legislative agenda passed as possible, because then it will in some ways be a referendum, if you will, or at least a chance for the American people to check and to say, do you want to support the president’s party or do you not want to support the president’s party?

And so there’s been only a couple exceptions in the last hundred years. The 1934 election, that was one, during the depths of the Great Depression, where President Roosevelt picked up – President Roosevelt’s party, the Democrats, picked up quite a large number of seats in the 1934 midterm election. And if you know parts of the American history, you have a first New Deal in that first Congress from 1933 to ’35, but then a second New Deal after that ’34 – 1934 election, where you do get significant amount of his program. – most significantly, Social Security comes in in 1935, demonstrably advancing President Roosevelt’s legislative proposals.

Another exception is going to be the 2002 midterm congressional election, during President George W. Bush’s first term. And there, I think, in large part that the president’s party, the Republicans, picked up a number of seats in the 2002 election. In large part, that was because it was only a year after 9/11, only a year after the terrorist attacks and the United States was still in many ways unified politically. And so it’s a sort of a normal case where you would see the president losing seats in the House of Representatives.

A couple times – and this is one that may be interesting, if you’re historically-minded – but one of the more activist presidents in the 20th century was Lyndon Johnson, and he became president after the assassination of John F. Kennedy. And so 1964 was a very productive year for him, even though it was the last year, or it would have been the last year of President Kennedy. And so the 1964 election almost was not quite a referendum on Lyndon Johnson, but somewhat. And one of the things that Johnson knew is that he wanted and he made sure that, as much as he could, had to get passed in 1965 because he knew that come 1966, he would lose seats. And he did lose a significant number of seats, his party, in the 1966 election. And much of the Great Society slowed down after that point.

One of the things that Lyndon Johnson really wanted, and he actually floated this as a constitutional amendment, as an idea, is that you would have the congressional elections synchronized with the presidential elections. He wanted to have congressmen having four-year terms that would be elected the same time as the president. You can imagine how that would change dramatically the dynamic of the American political system, making it almost a parliamentary system in some ways. And the members of the House kind of smiled at him and it absolutely went nowhere.

But you can see that the American political system dynamic is not designed for a single party, single-party rule, at all. In fact, what you may want to consider if you look at this, you can almost see that there are five parties operating in the American political system. You have the president’s party, either Republican or Democrat. Then you have Republicans and Democrats in the House and Republicans and Democrats in the Senate. And they operate on different dynamics, not because they disagree with each other ideologically but because the structure of the House, the Senate, and the White House are different. And that opens up a dynamic that allows public opinion to weigh in differently than it will on a parliamentary system.

You also had a third question in there, and that was the case of what happens when one of the legislative bodies is with the president and the other is opposed. We haven’t for a long time had the experience of the Senate – well, actually, wait, this wasn’t a midterm, but in the 1980 election when Ronald Reagan was elected president, the Senate became Republican with a Republican majority while the House had a Democratic majority. And so you had a House which is Democratic majority, a Senate Republican, and Ronald Reagan in the White House. In the 1982 midterm election, it was the same thing, and also in 1984. And so you did have a six-year period where the Senate and the House were not of the same party. That’s probably the closest example historically, and the most recent example historically.

What you have is some dynamics, and this is something – you’re journalists and I want you to start thinking congressionally, but also to use the political time to predict what’s going to happen. And one of the things that you noticed back in 1981 and ’82, the Constitution says all revenue bills have to originate in the House. By tradition, all spending bills originate there, too. So tax bills and spending bills originate in the House. And what’s going to happen? It was very interesting, the power that Speaker Tip O’Neill, a Democrat from Massachusetts had, because he was the leader in the House of Representatives, and all the tax and spending bills had to come from that chamber, which was the party opposed to the president. And so that could be a situation, depending upon which way the House and which way the Senate goes in three weeks. But that could be a situation that you would see, like you did in 1981, ‘82, ‘83, and ‘84, significant fights over tax policy and over spending as that dynamic of the House in one party and the Senate and president in another. So that’s a short answer, but it gives you some context, hopefully.

Yeah. Yes, sir. Then we can go.

QUESTION: Thank you, sir. My name is Ben Bangoura with (inaudible) Africa. I would like to know why the House has to be reelected every two years as opposed to the Senate, for instance, which is (inaudible) six years. Do we know why?

DR. BEUTTLER: The question is why is the House up for election every two years? Because the founders wanted it that way. Many – they wanted it to be very close, to be very reflective of public opinion. They wanted it to be one that was immediately associated with how the public was going to be thinking each time. In fact, some of the states at the time actually had annual elections, and that was seen as a little too frequent. But the Senate is one – by design is to cool the passions of the House. And that’s its goal of – the Senate is designed to slow the process down, to be very deliberative. The House is designed to be very quickly – to make a decision very quickly.

And one of the things – and this is something that you want to think about – some of these provisions are in the Constitution itself. The House is two years. Every two years, it has an election. That’s what the founders intended it to be. But you have a 222-year history after this point. And what the House has evolved is even more reflective of public opinion in some ways in that the majority in the House, based on House rules – the majority is what sets the opinion in the House of Representatives, making it even closer to what the public is thinking. The Senate is not designed that way. The Senate is designed not to have elections every six years, but to have one-third elected every two years, to have that continuity.

And you can actually see it. When you go up to Capitol Hill, you’ll see members of the House and their staffs are like this. The House is at a pace like this and everybody’s just running around all over the place, a frenetic pace, whereas the Senate, they move slower. They even walk slower over there.

I like to take a look – if you look on the first floor, the House has gone through at least two floors. You know, the marble has worn all the way through to the tile. In the Senate, their floor is a hundred and fifty years old. It’s still there. And it gives you a sense of the pacing.

The founders wanted the members of the House – all of which, by the way, have been directly elected by the people. Every single member of the House has been elected by the people. In the Senate, sometimes you can be appointed other ways, as you see, because now there’s four Senate races that have appointed senators in this term.

But that’s some of the things. The founders really wanted one popular body very reflective of public opinion. They wanted another body that would slow things down, to be deliberative. That gives you one of the virtues of Congress, I would suggest. We all are familiar with the virtues of the executive branch. One of the key ones is efficiency and singleness of decision. When there’s a single point, you have that immediacy of command, for example. That’s not a virtue of Congress. Anybody thinks that efficiency is the ideal with Congress is missing the point. The point is not efficiency but public deliberation. That’s what you want to have. You want that openness of debate that’s there, to allow as many possible voices to be heard on specific issues.

And I think it’s interesting on how the Constitution evolved – the Constitution is written, but also the House has evolved in a certain way and the Senate has evolved in a different way. One to represent the majority principle, the other to protect the voices of the minority and that deliberation. It’s a good question on that structure.

Yeah. Yes, sir.

QUESTION: Christian Wernicke is my name. I’m a German journalist for Sueddeutsche Zeitung. Two questions, if I may. I would like to follow up on your remarks about the non-parliamentary system that the U.S. is, but there are many, many complaints, increasingly especially after the end of the Cold War that especially the House is turning more and more into a House that is not in line with the checks and balance system, which means it is more and more political culture of a parliamentary system that’s not able to compromise anymore. The incarnation of this culture is Tom DeLay, who left but who left the culture also and it didn’t change much under Nancy Pelosi. So to what extent is the current culture of, especially the House of Representatives, not in line with the construction of the system of government there?

And in that regard, I’d like to – the other question’s more referring to the Senate. There’s always this complaint that the Senate is representing only (inaudible) you remember the House candidate that the (inaudible) number of people is only representing a small minority, can be only 10 percent of the population. And could you just answer that, to what extent that is non-democracy by intention?

DR. BEUTTLER: Okay, maybe the second question first and then you can come in there. This is the makeup of the Senate. And as you know, every senator is equal. Every state has two senators. We all understand that some senators are more equal than others. That’s very clear. But you do have the possibility of a very small minority – it’s only around 20 percent of senators, if they voted all the same way, could actually be a majority in that chamber.

Wyoming has two senators, and it has about 400,000 people. California has two senators, and it has, what, something like 35 million, somewhere in there? Quite a bit different in dynamic. But the Senate is not designed in that way to be democratic. It’s not designed to be reflective of population. It’s designed to be reflective of the several states. And that was a compromise put in place at the constitutional convention to allow the large states and the small states, especially the small states, to have that equal representation to allow the unanimous provisions of the Articles of Confederation, where every state had to agree, to make it so that there could – at least some representation of state governments.

Now, that does set up a non-democratic or a check on the democratic principles. And that’s the founders’ intention. I don’t think that is something – they’re not desirous to create a true democracy. As one – as James Madison said, that even if all of Athens were Socrates, the Athenian assembly would still be a mob. And that was something that the founders were very concerned about. To allow – and that was one of Madison’s ideals, to expand the nature of the republic, to have – so that there would never be a majority faction on a large number of issues.

And while, structurally, it appears that the Senate could have only 20 percent of the American population controlling half the Senate, it really doesn’t happen all that often. In fact, it very seldom does. In fact, if you look at the example that you pointed out on the healthcare debate, it wasn’t large scales – large states versus small states. It was much more evenly represented. Some of the states – for example, California has one delegation in one party – but others do not. And so you didn’t have a control of just the small states.

But it was not designed to be purely democratic. There is what the House is for, one democratic body, one that’s operated on the state sovereignty principle. You – that raises an issue that I think gets at your second question because, very insightfully, you do suggest that over the last, maybe, well, you could say maybe since 1978, the House has been moving toward the direction of almost being parliamentary in the sense of very strict, tight party discipline, at least among some parties.

Over a hundred years ago – actually, back into the 1880s – an American political scientist by the name of Woodrow Wilson wrote his dissertation on Congress. And his argument was that it should become parliamentary. And he was trying to make the president as the leader of the party, almost like prime minister. And the House was deeply resentful of that in some ways. But what that suggests to me is that the real dynamic is back and forth between which body gets to set the legislative agenda. Is it going to be the Senate, which is going to have a principle of equality between the states? Is it going to be the House of Representatives? Are they going to be the ones to have that legislative agenda and the legislative initiative? Or is it going to be the president? And you very clearly suggest that the House is moving to become more parliamentary.

I don’t – well, in some ways, maybe the Senate is, too. But the dynamic of the Senate is not going to allow it to have strict party-line voting consistently on issue after issue. In some ways, only one of the parties is really operating that way in the House, a little more disciplined party-wise than a much more broader-tent Democratic Party. That could be the way it’s moving. There was some speculation that maybe it would be an interesting example, like what it was back in the 1960s, where you really didn’t have two parties. You really had three parties: northern Democrats, southern Democrats, and Republicans. And what you would have is coalitions between, for example, on civil rights, Republicans and northern Democrats. On defense, you’d have southern Democrats and Republicans, a coalition that way. But it maybe that the House is moving in a more parliamentary system. If it does, you would have the checks of the other branches because it would be very difficult for the Senate to operate on a pure parliamentary system because of the Senate rules. That’s not a constitutional issue. That’s a rules of the Senate versus rules of the House.

So I hope that answered some of the question, but I do agree that it has been moved to a more disciplined party organization over the last 20, 30 years or so.

One more question, I guess. Yeah.

QUESTION: Hi, this is Xavier Vila with Spanish public radio. Nowadays, roughly the popularity among politicians up on Capitol Hill is something like 20 percent, something like that, depending on the polls that you check. Has this always been like this, at least recently? I was here in ’06 and it was pretty bad, but I don’t think it was as bad as it is now. So what would you think, historically?

DR. BEUTTLER: That’s something that historically that – one of the things that I’ve always found that many presidents have – it’s been very positive and cheery, no matter how low their personal approval ratings go. The reason they’re usually much more upbeat is they – no matter how low a president’s approval rating goes, they always know it’s above that of Congress.

The American political system, for some reason – and this goes back over a century – there’s always this deep suspicion of Congress. Some of it is because I don’t think a lot of the American people understand it that well. They’re very comfortable with understanding the hierarchical structure of the executive branch. They know that the president is in charge and they know that those people there – and many of them work in places like that, like a business, a corporation, a corporate CEO. The House is so much different and the Senate is so much different because it’s hard to get a handle of 435 or 100 people. But also, they don’t see that power is so decentralized there. And so they want them to move very quickly, where structurally, the founders and the members in the House and Senate, the rules have evolved to slow the process down, to allow for a lot of debate, to allow for deliberate discussion.

And so you get a situation like President Obama coming in with one of his main important claims. Or maybe let’s go back to one I’m surprised I didn’t hear a question on. In 1992, when President Clinton, Bill Clinton was elected, he came in with very clearly what he thought was a mandate on healthcare. He had a large Democratic majority in the House and a large Democratic majority in the Senate. But because of how the diversity within public opinion was, he – as well as certain rules internal to the House and Senate – he wasn’t able to get his signature program passed. Mr. Obama and the Democrats in the House and Senate very clearly went to school on that and they understood that they were not going to make the same mistakes that the Clinton White House did back in 1993 and 1994.

ELAPSED 39:30

In 1994, the Clinton position was repudiated in a major midterm election change that brought in new majorities in the House and Senate, first time in the House in 40 years. The – there, I think, that is a very good example not just so much of public opinion and a sort of poor approval rating on the part of Congress because that’s – in some ways, it goes to – really bad to even worse to not so bad. It’s usually in the teens, 20s, maybe up to 30 percent, public approval rating on Congress. It has been that way for generations. But rather the effectiveness of can they get something done, and then the second part is do they – do a large number of the American people like to get – like to have certain things done?

And one of the things I think is very helpful that the founders had is they had this curative check that the public opinion can weigh in on and midpoint, every two years, on something to allow that political system to operate effectively, because one of the things I think is the genius of the system is that it doesn’t take 51 percent of the votes or 50 plus one to institute a policy. What it takes is 218 votes in the House, majority principle. It takes three-fifths, 60 percent, in the Senate. And it takes the White House. So what you have is a political system that is not run by the majority at any one distinct point in time, but rather it’s run by three different bodies that all have to be agreement on a single policy, all elected on different cycles, all thus representing different segments of that population and that population’s opinion. So that rather than simply having 51 percent, you can get a huge policy change. Rather, you get maybe two-thirds of the people – a majority in the House, 60 in the Senate, and the president. If all of those agree, you’re probably getting a two-thirds consensus, at least at a certain point, on a specific policy issue.

And one of the beauties of the system is it opens to debate, and now we’re in the middle of a great national debate to see who wins. And in three weeks, we’ll see this. And then, guess what? We get to do it all over again two years from now. (Laughter.) All right? (Inaudible.)

MODERATOR: Thank you very much, Dr. Beuttler. We’re out of time. Thank you all for coming. That concludes our briefing.

###