Vital Stats: Trump faces an uphill battle to maintain success in Congress

Workers prepare for the inauguration of U.S. President-Elect Donald Trump at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, DC, U.S., January 19, 2017. REUTERS/Brian Snyder - RTSWB74
Presidents enjoy more success in Congress early in their terms
Vital Statistics on Congress is a regular publication of the Brookings Institution. Since its first publication in 1980, it has become a go-to reference guide for those interested in congressional affairs. This blog is the second in a series that highlights interesting data trends in each chapter of the most recent update, released January 2017.

Even before President Trump took the oath of office, his presence could be felt among Republicans on Capitol Hill. Republicans in the House, led by Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-VA), were set to adopt a package of rules on the first day of the 115th Congress that would have limited the power of the Office of Congressional Ethics, an independent congressional oversight body. The provision in question was removed, however, after an onslaught of angry phone calls from constituents and two tweets from President-elect Trump admonishing House members for putting this priority ahead of tax and health care reform. Conversely, Obamacare repeal—a frequent, if not always detailed, talking point of the Trump campaign—was taken up with much greater success. During their first week in session, the Senate adopted a budget resolution paving the way for portions of Obamacare to be repealed with just a simple majority of the vote, rather than the 60 votes typically required to invoke cloture. This won some praise from the president-elect amidst continued calls to take further action towards repeal.

The new president is wise to start exercising his influence in Congress as early as possible. The graph above, taken from data available in Chapter 8 of the 2017 release of Vital Statistics on Congress, demonstrates the tendency for presidents to experience declining legislative success over the course of their tenure. For our measure, presidential success in Congress is defined as the share of votes in Congress supportive of the president’s position out of all legislation where the president takes a position. Thus, this graph demonstrates that the longer a president is in office, the less likely Congress is hand him legislative victories.

There are a number of factors that make this downward trend of presidential legislative success so hard to escape. Once the new president takes office, the popular excitement surrounding a change in administration starts to wind down. The new president must prove himself by living up to the promises made during his campaign—a goal which most presidents pursue in earnest but rarely to public satisfaction. Research has shown a failure to live up to expectations to be a driving force behind presidential approval, which generally falls over time.  The evidence on just how significant declining popularity is for legislative success, however, is mixed. Some work suggests that members of Congress feel less pressure to acquiesce to less popular presidents, but other scholars find that approval ratings only matter at the margins.

More important, then, are changes in the partisan composition of the Congress with which the president is dealing. In eight of the ten midterm elections held during the period covered by this graphic, the president’s party lost more congressional seats than it gained. Five of the six presidents covered served all or part of their term with both houses controlled by the opposite party, and four saw at least one house in the other party’s control after their first two years in office. Members of Congress who aren’t in the president’s party have much less incentive to follow his lead on policy, and are even motivated to vote against the president’s wishes on issues on which he takes a position. Increasing partisanship only strengthens the urge to deny presidents of the other party legislative victories.

Of course the trends of past presidents are just that—patterns that may or may not hold true in the future. However, early indications of President Trump’s chances for continued congressional influence are not encouraging. Several polls taken just days before inauguration show that Trump is taking office with higher unfavorable than favorable ratings; the gap between the two ranging from nine to fourteen points. That is especially striking considering the lowest starting congressional success rate in the above figure was held by George H. W. Bush, whose favorability was 46 points higher than his unfavorable rating at the beginning of his term. And aside from the 67 Democratic members of the House that chose to vocally boycott President Trump’s inauguration, it remains unclear if, and how quickly, the Republican party will fall in line behind his proposed legislative agenda. While House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) has largely backed off his criticism of Trump voiced during the campaign, he still holds differing opinions from the president on policies such as Medicare reform and trade. Several Senate Republicans have taken positions against Trump as well, though it’s yet to be seen if those positions will persist through the coming months.

Unified government should help Trump succeed with Congress in the early years of his term, though perhaps not as much as similar arrangements have for earlier presidents. Still, for these first two years of the Trump presidency, Congress likely has its best chance to work with the president to achieve early successes and impress voters. Republicans’ ability to turn any legislative accomplishments into electoral victories in 2018 will matter a great deal for Trump’s longer term prospects.