Obama Recruits Heavily From the Hill
By Ben Pershing
Since he took office two months ago, President Obama has been making all manner of gestures, large and small, to reach out to his old colleagues in Congress and persuade them to support his agenda. He's had them over for dinner and cocktails, invited them to watch the Super Bowl and even gone to the Capitol to lobby for their votes. But there's one more method Obama has used to court members of Congress, more so than any of his recent predecessors: He has given them jobs.
With his pick last week of Rep. Ellen Tauscher (D-Calif.) to serve as an undersecretary of State, Obama has now chosen more sitting lawmakers for posts in his administration than any of his predecessors did at the start of their presidencies, going back at least five decades. Tauscher (who has not yet been confirmed) is the sixth member plucked by Obama for executive service, following Vice President Biden, chief of staff Rahm Emanuel, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar and Labor Secretary Hilda Solis. (Ray LaHood was already retiring from the House when Obama picked him to run the Transportation Department. And Judd Gregg could have made it seven, before he decided to withdraw his name for commerce secretary.)
"Part of [Obama's] tactic of governing is that he's reaching out to the Hill and trying to bridge the separation of powers," said James Thurber, head of American University's Center for Congressional and Presidential Studies. He pointed out that each of those members selected by Obama brings with him or her a whole set of relationships on Capitol Hill that will benefit the administration.
Obama's choices contrast starkly with those of President George W. Bush, who didn't pick a single sitting member for service at the start of his administration (though he added a few later in his term). And based on the past research of Ken Rudin, the political editor and author of the "Political Junkie" blog for National Public Radio, Obama narrowly edges out President Bill Clinton, who recruited five sitting lawmakers to begin his tenure - Al Gore, Les Aspin, Lloyd Bentsen, Mike Espy and Leon Panetta. President George H.W. Bush picked two members and President Ronald Reagan had just one. Rudin's research goes back through President Dwight Eisenhower (who didn't recruit a single sitting lawmaker to begin his presidency), and showed Clinton with the most such picks. Until now.
Other than fostering communication, why else has Obama chosen so frequently from Congress?
First, it's worth noting that Obama himself is the first sitting member to be elected president since John F. Kennedy, so it's fair to guess he had a built-in affinity for the legislative branch that most of his predecessors didn't have. Also, Obama is operating with comfortable Democratic majorities in both the House and Senate, enabling him to pick members without fear of sapping the party's strength too much if their seats changed hands.
George W. Bush, by contrast, took office in 2001 with a 50-50 Senate and a narrow GOP majority in the House, so it wasn't in his interest to create a bunch of open seats.
It's too soon to say whether Obama's decision to stock the White House with former lawmakers will pay dividends. Other than the economic stimulus measure, on which Emanuel played an especially important role, the administration hasn't yet pushed through many bills whose success can be attributed to lobbying by his Cabinet or staff. But as more opportunities arise for administration officials to hit the Hill on Obama's behalf, at least a half-dozen of them will have a key advantage - they know their way around.
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