Obama’s Not the First President to Say ‘Bucket’ to Congress

tags: Congress, Obama

This article is adapted from Thomas Fleming’s latest book, "The Great Divide: The Conflict between Washington and Jefferson that Defined a Nation."

President Barack Obama’s comic and quasi-profane slaps at Congress at the White House Correspondents' Dinner over the weekend (“I have something that rhymes with a bucket list. … Take executive action on immigration? Bucket!”) only confirmed what we already knew: This is a relationship that has grown more dysfunctional with each passing year of the Obama presidency. One day we hear that Obama thinks he can govern the country with executive orders. The next day we hear that Congress is threatening to shut down the federal government or one of its crucial agencies. Congress invites the prime minister of Israel to come before it and attack the president’s attempt to negotiate a nuclear treat with Iran. Without informing Congress, the president decides to abandon the policy of quarantining the Communist government of Cuba.

Few people besides a handful of historians realize just how long this contest between the president and Congress has been dividing Washington, D.C.—how, in fact, an ongoing debate over this issue has defined and redefined the balance of power in the federal government for more than two centuries. It erupted with particular virulence during Ronald Reagan’s presidency. He and the speaker of the House, Jim Wright, fought a virtual civil war over our foreign policy toward the anti-communist Contras who were fighting far-left Sandinistas for control of Nicaragua. After the Reagan administration funneled money to the Contras from arms sales to Iran, the phrase “Iran-Contra” became the subject of endless investigations on Capitol Hill.

None of this would have surprised the two most famous founding fathers, George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. Almost from the moment Jefferson joined the first president’s cabinet as secretary of state, they disagreed on the fundamental structure of the federal government—and whether the executive or legislative branch should have more power.

Washington saw himself playing a crucial leadership role in a new and powerful office that would be coequal to Congress. Jefferson feared that a strong presidency was a prelude to a dictatorship or a king. He insisted Congress should be the primary authority, the true, even the only, voice of the people. He organized a political party to oppose Washington and his followers. The quarrel between the two men grew so intense they became enemies.

When Washington died unexpectedly in 1799, Jefferson declined to go to his funeral services. Two years after her husband’s death, Martha Washington remarked to a visiting congressman that the two worst days of her life were the day George died and the day Thomas Jefferson came to pay his condolences. ...

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