Miller Center

American President

A Reference Resource

Legislative Affairs

The Legislative Affairs unit is the carrot-and-stick office of the White House.

Every federal program must have the imprimatur of Congress; every dime the executive branch spends must pass congressional muster; hundreds of senior appointees and dozens of treaties require Senate approval. The White House is engaged in a never-ending process of persuasion.

President Eisenhower created the first White House Legislative Affairs Office which had real weight -- "an ambulatory bridge across a constitutional gulf" as the late and respected Eisenhower assistant Bryce Harlow described it. Every President since has continued that office and has given it senior stature and omnipresent influence within the White House.

Its tools of persuasion are manyfold. Its members spend hours at the Capitol -- explaining and defending presidential proposals, negotiating compromises, counting noses and estimating votes. They often escort other senior White House associates to Capitol Hill to help in these efforts -- informally, of course, since neither they nor any other White House aides normally testify at formal hearings.

The legislative liaison staffers return to the White House to instruct cabinet officers how to use their influence among senators or representatives in support of the presidential initiatives, to argue legislative strategy with their White House colleagues, to give the President their assessment of the prospects for congressional approvals and, frequently, to prepare the President himself for personal telephone calls to fence straddlers. Every strategem is used: invitations to White House social events, seats on Air Force One, tickets to the presidential boxes at the Kennedy Center.

There is a Legislative Liaison office in each cabinet department; since the heads of those offices are usually picked by the White House legislative affairs chief, their loyalties run to the White House, and under that White House leadership, they form a network of cooperating forces.

In the George W. Bush White House, the legislative affairs chief has the rank of assistant to the President and presides over a staff of twenty-two.