The death of Ronald Reagan cast the minds of lawmakers and government officials back to a transformative eight-year period when Congress met its match in a genial but hard-charging conservative determined to reshape American politics and, in the process, the relationship between two branches of government.
Members, aides and experts recalled Reagan’s tenure as one marked by success in cajoling an overwhelmingly Democratic House of Representatives and winning cooperation that his predecessor, Jimmy Carter, couldn’t gain from his fellow Democrats.
The Bully Pulpit
It was Reagan’s good fortune to occupy the presidency at the onset of the 24-hour news cycle. Programs such as “Nightline,” which began airing during the hostage crisis in Iran, led the way, soon to be joined in 1980 by the Cable News Network, or CNN.
The new dynamic played directly to Reagan’s strength as a communicator. It ensured that the president had an opportunity to reach out to the public directly, rather than be confined to a sound bite on the evening news or to the pages of the newspapers.
“It was beginning to be broader than just what were going to be the lead stories on the three networks,” said Fred McClure, a special assistant to Reagan who later served as legislative liaison under the first President Bush. “When you put all of that into perspective, it took advantage of a skill set that President Reagan used so beautifully.”
In Reagan’s hands, television became a medium that could be used to pressure Congress, fully realizing the potential of the president’s “bully pulpit.” In a characteristic display of showmanship, Reagan one year brought a copy of the federal budget to his State of the Union address, and then let it fall with a heavy thump on the rostrum — a way of suggesting that Congressional spending was out of control. Reagan was the first president to use the occasion of that annual speech to point to “everyday heroes,” who would be seated alongside the first lady in the gallery.
Reagan and his staff also revolutionized the staging of political events, devoting more attention to details such as the backdrop and audience than any previous White House had.
“I think we came to it late,” one Democratic leadership staffer from the time said, referring to the sophistication of Reagan’s use of television.
Even so, the leadership aide suggested that Reagan’s ability to control the Congressional agenda has been somewhat overblown — a perspective shared, quietly, by a number of Democrats.
Nothing contributed more to Reagan’s early ability to persuade the American public than the attempt on his life in March 1981, not even two months into his presidency.
The episode, and Reagan’s grace in dealing with it, brought forth a great outpouring of sympathy from the public — one that certainly enhanced the new president’s position on Capitol Hill. Indeed, Reagan achieved his major victory — on that year’s budget resolution — from his hospital bed, from which he dialed up lawmakers, seeking their support.
On the vote, Reagan got every single Republican, plus 63 Democrats. He had only needed 28.
The next big vote, on budget reconciliation, was another matter. Rep. Dick Bolling (D-Mo.), the powerful chairman of the Rules Committee, split Reagan’s economic package into six pieces, in a move that would likely have watered it down considerably. Reagan decided to go directly to the public.
“Reagan went to the American people and said, ‘I just want a vote up or down on my package. What I want is a fair shot,’” said former Reagan Chief of Staff Ken Duberstein. With the help of that appeal, Reagan’s allies on Capitol Hill defeated the rule put forward by Bolling and adopted a new rule that would provide the vote the president wanted.
“In the first two years he came in like a steamroller and rolled right through the Congressional leadership after emerging from that near-death experience,” said former Speaker Jim Wright (D-Texas). “He seemed absolutely indomitable. He proposed such wide-ranging changes in the budget and in the tax code, and he was just unstoppable.”
The victories laid the groundwork for Reagan to later win passage of massive tax cuts, which were key to his economic plan. It also provided the first glimpse of a gathering coalition that Reagan was building in Congress between Republicans and conservative Democrats from the South and Midwest.
The coalition came to include as many as 50 Democrats in the House, led by Texas “boll weevils” such as Reps. Kent Hance, Tom Loeffler and Charlie Stenholm, who remains in the chamber today. The coalition in the Senate, which was controlled by the GOP from 1981 to 1987, was even stronger. In that chamber, Reagan could rely on a panoply of moderate-to-conservative Democrats, including Sens. David Boren (Okla.), Dennis DeConcini (Ariz.), Howell Heflin (Ala.), Bennett Johnston (La.), Russell Long (La.) and John Stennis (Miss.).
“These were our go-to guys,” McClure recalled. “That’s how the governing coalition was put together.”
Although Republicans were able to significantly increase their share of House seats in 1980, they still never had more than 192 Members during Reagan’s tenure.
The significant Democratic majority made it crucial for Reagan to reach across the aisle to establish at least a modicum of bipartisan support for his major legislative initiatives.
“It’s amazing to me that he was able to achieve so much with so few Republicans in the House,” said Rep. Rob Portman (R-Ohio), who worked in legislative affairs office under the first President Bush. “It’s a great model for reaching across the aisle and working with Democrats on issues.”
“He’d charm one Democrat on the Ways and Means Committee and one on the Budget Committee into co-sponsoring an administration bill … and the public would buy it as a bipartisan compromise,” said Wright.
Reagan’s political popularity and his adeptness at using the bully pulpit allowed him to score a number of legislative successes in his first term. He was less effective in his second term, particularly after Democrats retook the Senate in 1986.
“He had a fairly high presidential support score in the first four years,” said James Thurber, director of American University’s Center for Congressional and Presidential Studies. “In the second four years it dissipated.”
“Congress began to reassert itself, slowly at first, and then in the least two years we really reclaimed the initiative,” said Wright, pointing to Congressional overrides of Reagan vetoes on a highway bill and clean water legislation.
In their assessments of Reagan’s relationship with the legislative branch, Members and experts were careful to distinguish between how lawmakers got along with Reagan himself versus their dealings with the rest of his administration.
Ann Gorsuch, head of Reagan’s Environmental Protection Agency, angered so many House Members that they held her in contempt of Congress and at one point considered impeaching her. Attorney General Ed Meese also had several run-ins with Congress, and the Iran-Contra affair stretched relations between the two branches to the breaking point.
That scandal had a particularly strong impact on Capitol Hill, since the primary allegation against the Reagan administration was that it had deliberately flaunted Congressional authority in funding the Contras.
“Money was spent that wasn’t authorized or appropriated,” Thurber said.
Up to his last days in office, Reagan was able to inspire fierce loyalty among Republicans on the Hill.
Rep. Christopher Cox (R-Calif.), who served in the White House counsel’s office before being elected to Congress in 1988, recalled Reagan’s last speech to the House Republican Conference in January 1989. Speaking to the assembled Members on the House floor, Reagan begin has remarks standing on the Democratic side of the aisle.
“Midway through describing how he became Republican, having supported FDR and campaigned for Harry Truman, [Reagan] said he didn’t leave the Democratic Party, the party left him, so he had crossed over,” Cox recounted. “As he said the words he strode purposefully from one rostrum to the other to the wild applause” of the Members.
The Charm Offensive
Reagan began his courtship of Congress before he was even sworn in as president.
On the first day of his transition, Reagan came to Capitol Hill and met with Congressional leaders of both parties. He joined Speaker Tip O’Neill (Mass.) and other top Democrats for lunches at Blair House during that pre-inaugural period, helping to lay the groundwork for their cordial personal relationship.
“Certainly he was very adroit in his dealings with Congress,” said Don Ritchie, the Associate Senate Historian. “He came up to use the President’s Room on the Senate side to meet with the leaders. … It was a way to break the ice and do a lot of business.”
Reagan’s frequent visits to the Hill marked an important symbolic departure from the standard presidential practice of making Congressional leaders come to the White House.
His administration also made a point of moving its legislative affairs shop out of the Old Executive Office Building and into the East Wing of the White House to underscore the office’s importance.
In all his personal dealings with Congressional leaders Reagan was able to deploy his considerable personal charm in a way that blunted the significant policy differences that remained between the two parties.
“He was convivial company so long as the subject stayed off of the legislative agenda,” said Wright. “If we were able to talk about things other than politics. He was a great raconteur. He had a great repertoire of stories.”
Wright recalled that he, O’Neill and other Congressional leaders would regularly join Reagan in a small area just outside the White House in the evenings and enjoy relaxed social chats.
In 1982, O’Neill invited Reagan to an event that was to become one of Capitol Hill’s more recent yet enduring traditions: the St. Patrick’s Day luncheon.
Rep. Ed Markey (D-Mass.), an O’Neill ally, recalled the first luncheon as a fairly intimate affair, with participants packed into the small chamber that still stands across the marble hall from the Congressional Dining Room.
“Tip got up and told some of his patented, hilarious Irish stories. And then President Reagan said, ‘Tip, would you mind if I told a few stories?’ And he got up,” Markey said. “And he told one joke that was brilliantly delivered, and the whole room howled.
“And so here we were, there were these two Irish politicians who loved good times, loved politics,” Markey said. “But neither of them could understand how the other held the political philosophy he held.”