Politics & Government

The biggest obstacle in Obama's path: Congress (who else?)

President Obama address Congress
President Obama address Congress Zbigniew Bzdak/Chicago Tribune/MCT

WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama's ambitious plans will face immediate political difficulty in a wary — and often parochial — Congress that's long resisted such fast, radical change.

It's not only lawmakers who tend to resist overturning the status quo. An army of lobbyists, grassroots interests, campaign contributors and others who make up insider Washington await, all eager to express their views on why Obama's plans need to be amended, if not defeated.

"He's going to get it from all sides," said Maya MacGuineas, president of the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, a Washington budget watchdog group.

Obama effectively said "bring it on" in his Saturday address on radio and the Internet.�

"The system we have now might work for the powerful and well-connected interests that have run Washington for far too long.�But I don't. I work for the American people," the president said. "I know these steps won't sit well with the special interests and lobbyists who are invested in the old way of doing business, and I know they're gearing up for a fight.�My message to them is this: So am I."

Some of Obama's troubles are purely political. All 435 seats in the House of Representatives as well as 36 Senate seats are up for election in 2010, and most lawmakers want something tangible to take home, such as money for a highway or a new school, rather than promises to cut the federal deficit in half four years from now.

The president, however, must also navigate a legislative system that seems almost unfathomable, a Congress where it often takes weeks just to set up a hearing, let alone rewrite big chunks of the nation's tax code. And even if they're inclined to act, many lawmakers are reluctant to tear up policies and programs to start from scratch.

For instance, Obama this week emphasized again that he wants to end earmarks, or the local projects that lawmakers routinely insert into spending bills without having them scrutinized by the normal legislative process. Earmarks are controversial because they sometimes are favors for special interests and other times seem extravagantly wasteful, such as the infamous "bridge to nowhere" in Alaska. Ending them would be a symbolic gesture showing that Congress and the White House are ready to make sacrifices to pare the budget.

Next week, however, the Senate plans to debate and vote on a $410 billion fiscal 2009 budget plan that currently contains about 9,000 earmarks costing $3.8 billion. The House of Representatives passed the bill Wednesday.

Even Obama's staunchest allies argued vociferously for the earmarks.

"We are a separate branch of government, and since we've been a country, we have had the obligation as a Congress to help direct spending," said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev. "We cannot let spending be done by a bunch of nameless, faceless bureaucrats buried in this town someplace to take care of the needs of the states of Nevada, Washington and New York."

Much tougher tasks await. Lawmakers have been battling over environmental, health and tax policy for decades, and a seasoned array of powerful interests is again ready to pounce on Obama's sweeping proposals and bend them to their will.

One key element of Obama's budget calls for transforming health care, for example. Whenever such proposals are taken up, however, "all the icons come out — 'it's government intervention, it's too expensive' — it raises a lot of hackles," said Brian Bethune, chief U.S. financial economist at IHS Global Insight, a Lexington, Mass., economic research firm.

It also brings out the big money interests. In the 2008 election cycle, health professionals were the sixth most generous industry givers, donating about $94 million to candidates, with 53 percent going to Democrats and 47 percent to Republicans, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, a campaign finance research group. The pharmaceutical industry gave another $28 million, split between the parties.

Other issues, notably environmental policy, will be no easier. The president will face another unique set of obstacles — manufacturers concerned about the carbon tax, environmentalists who want curbs on global warming, carmakers concerned about retooling too fast — as well as members of Congress with concerns about the fate of local industries. He'll have to forge a new coalition for each issue, because the politics of each differs by region as much as by party or ideology.

Also contributing to the bumpy road is the politics of staying in Congress. Many of the House seats that Democrats gained last year are in swing districts and will be heavily targeted by Republicans in 2010.

That's why 20 House Democrats opposed the 2009 spending measure this week. Rep. Harry Mitchell, D-Ariz., a second-term member who won re-election with 53 percent of the vote last year, said that while he agreed with much of the spending bill, "it contains too much unnecessary spending," notably a 10 percent increase in legislative branch funds.

"Spending more on Congress — more on ourselves — will not help get the economy back on track," he said.

However, spending more on items that benefit the folks back home might at least get the lawmakers back to Washington, and so for all of Obama's lofty plans, he's going to have to get lawmakers to look beyond their self-interest and see the bigger picture.

It won't be easy.

"I know people in Washington are focused on the economy, but when I go home, people are asking me about funding a Little League field or help with housing,' said Rep. Jose Serrano, D-N.Y., a House Appropriations Committee member. "Sure, they're concerned about the big picture, but they don't want their lives to stop."


House roll call vote on budget

Text of House spending bill

Transportation, housing and economic development earmarks

2008 campaign contributions from health care professionals

2008 campaign contributions from pharmaceutical industry


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