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Portland Oregonian | 07/26/1998


Feeling stymied, the president pushes his agenda with directives and vetoes

It's becoming a pattern: When Congress doesn't do what President Clinton wants -- and this year, that is most of the time -- he does as much of it himself as he can.

By issuing executive orders and directives, invoking his right to veto and staging nearly an event a day, the president is trying to carry his agenda forward, even when Republican lawmakers won't.

It's a typical tactic of presidents who face an opposition party in Congress. But as Clinton strives to leave his mark on the office, it's an art he has had to perfect.

Take last week as an example. Congress ignores his education plan to pay for school construction and new teachers? Fine. Clinton vetoes the Republicans' education version. Congress has not passed his juvenile-justice bill? OK, the president awards a series of small grants to help churches fight gangs in 16 cities.

Acting alone, by executive order or some other means, "has clearly become a central component of Clinton's leadership strategy," says Terry Moe, a political science professor at Stanford University.

Many of Clinton's independent actions don't have nearly the impact of his directive last winter that extended patients' rights to almost one-third of Americans. Or the effect of his controversial May executive order to prohibit the federal government from discriminating based on sexual orientation.

But taken collectively, they "add up to an agenda," says Moe, who is co-authoring a book about the power of unilateral measures by presidents.

Part of this approach to governing is simply the Clintonian way. But a big motivator is the Republican-controlled Congress. In this midterm election year, when Republicans and Democrats are looking for ways to distinguish themselves from each other, Clinton has lost on tobacco, education and child care, to name just a few of the items on his long to-do list.

"Any time you see the hourglass draining with respect to bipartisan cooperation on legislation in Congress, then it's time to start looking at other ways of skinning a cat," says Mike McCurry, White House spokesman.

Of course, the president often is restricted in what he can do to get around Congress, which controls the purse strings for his programs.

A good example is education. One presidential response to that last week was to call for a summit in the fall about school safety -- hardly a substitute for bricks, mortar and more personnel in the classroom.

The White House the spirit of cooperation to move lawmakers on the patients' bill of rights, which would reform managed care. There is room for maneuvering on the president's most contentious criteria -- the right of people to sue health-maintenance organizations when the HMOs make mistakes, McCurry says.

Clinton certainly is not the only president to govern by executive fiat. Harry Truman desegregated the military through executive order. Lyndon B. Johnson introduced affirmative action the same way. And when it comes to rejecting legislation from Congress, Gerald Ford freely used his veto pen, says Stephen Hess of the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C.

But it's hard to find any president who matches Clinton's modus operandi of event-a-day governing. Last week it was a school summit announcement on Monday, nursing-home crackdown on Tuesday, grants to fight youth crime on Wednesday and relief for parched farmers on Thursday.

Critics, though, say it's precisely this all-over-the-map approach that contributes to Clinton's losses.

"My advice would be focus, focus, focus," says George Edwards, director of the center for presidential studies at Texas A&M in College Station. "Any piece of legislation takes a long time to incubate. You have to keep doing it and not do anything else."

But the White House doesn't see it that way. "Why do you think Bill Clinton's got these favorable poll numbers?" McCurry says. Relief for farmers is front-page news in the parched upper plains. Americans see a president doing his job, McCurry says, despite his legal and political challenges in Washington.

1998, Christian Science Monitor


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