Organizing the White House: Bridging the Executive-Legislative Divide

By Patrick Griffin and James A. Thurber

A new Administration will be faced with the continuation of divided government – a pattern that has persisted for much of the postwar period in American government. Recent decades have witnessed the deepening of conflict between the White House and Congress as the parties have become more polarized than at any time in our modern political history. The deepening ideological schism has eroded the willingness to compromise to make government work, as the numbers of centrists in government has withered to new lows.

As one author says, “partisan polarization is like the cell phone of American politics--ubiquitous, occasionally annoying, and often the cause of public policy pileups when distracted lawmakers swerve into oncoming legislative traffic, and like the omnipresent technological device, partisanship has become one of the most dominant features of contemporary American Politics” (Andres 2005).

These trends have manifested themselves in hardened resistance to Presidential initiatives within the Congress, prompting Presidents to resort to executive actions to achieve at least partially what Congress has refused to do legislatively. It has jeopardized actions that must be taken to keep the government open for business by threatening the approval of appropriations and debt ceiling extensions, causing periodic government shutdowns and threatening the standing of the federal government with global credit markets.

The roots of sharp conflicts between Congress and the President are deep and difficult to reverse, reflecting the sorting of the American electorate into different geographic areas and districts. Nonetheless, Presidents must find a way to manage the Congress as they find it, not the one they may wish for.

The new President and Congress need an efficient and effective White House Office of Legislative Affairs (OLA) to help bridge the partisan gap and polarization that has brought gridlock to Washington. In this memo, we propose the kind of organization and leadership that would help the President and congressional leaders translate promises into action and help achieve what is in the public interest. We then suggest specific steps that would help the new administration improve its relationship with Congress.


Political Polarization and Goals of the White House Office of Legislative Affairs

No matter the extent of polarization among voters, activists, the media, and among Members of Congress and a divisive campaign, the President must organize to effectively work with the House and Senate. Officially, the White House states that the Office of Legislative Affairs (OLA) is responsible for advancing the president's legislative agenda on Capitol Hill. "Every day, the White House Office of Legislative Affairs team is on the front lines, working with senators, representatives, and their staffs to promote the president's priorities" (Condon, 2013).

The three principal functions of the OLA are:

     ·      To help shape the overall political, policy and legislative strategy of the President;

     ·      To coordinate and manage the execution of the President’s initiatives as well as routine legislative, oversight and regulatory activity; and

     ·      To collect, manage and process political intelligence and relationships with members of Congress.

Creating a better presidential relationship with Congress depends upon a variety of political factors, but it should begin with building an effective OLA that is close to the President and fully integrated into the White House organization.


Recommendation Actions

The new President could begin by taking these major steps toward improving the relationship between the White House and the Hill:

1.     Establish appropriate status of OLA director to ensure effectiveness.

The regular senior advisor team for the President usually has three tiers. The first tier will likely initially be comprised of trusted advisors from the recent campaign, long-standing presidential confidants, as well as the spouse and maybe the Vice President. These individuals often meet privately and rarely show on an official schedule.

The second tier is usually compromised of trusted advisors that will have day-to-day responsibility for managing the key functions of the White House. There could be some overlap between the inner circle and the management circle. The configuration of this team varies from White House to White House. Most common members of this group usually would include the Chief of Staff, the Director of the National Security Council, the official spokesman, the Director of the OLA the General Counsel, the Political Director, among others. This tier usually meets with the President of the United States (POTUS) on a regular schedule and on an as needed basis.

The third tier of advisors includes all other senior staff of varying ranks, functions, and areas of expertise. Members of this group meet, if at all, with the president as needed.

The Director of the OLA must be a critical part of the president’s senior strategy and management team. His/her participation needs to be involved as far upstream in the policy making and political management process as possible. There is virtually no issue, policy, or activity of the POTUS or White House that would not provoke some aspect of congressional interest.

To ensure the effectiveness of the OLA, the director needs to be functioning in at least the second tier of advisors. He or she should be viewed as a critical member of this advisory team, with regular access to the POTUS and or the White House Chief of Staff.

2.     Select an experienced and highly respected director of legislative affairs.

The Director of OLA should be selected for his or her skill and relationships in working with Congress. This individual should have a command of congressional procedure, customs, and the policymaking process. These understandings are critical to efficiently and effectively advancing the President’s policy agenda. The Director not only has the responsibility of managing the obvious responsibilities of the OLA office, the responsibility extends to educating senior staff of about the ubiquitous role of the Congress. The Director should help guide the senior advisors as to why and how congress can be an asset or liability, if not managed. Congress is not entitled to ultimate deference, but ignored is at one’s peril to White House efficiency and success.

3.     Effectively manage OLA’s primary constituency.

The OLA, like many other White House offices, has a major constituency to manage as part of its daily responsibilities. Office structures within the White House and ranks of the directors may vary from Administration to Administration, however, the constituencies and interests to be broadly managed rarely vary. The OLA’s constituency is the entire Congress of the United States. We have mentioned what that job entails as it relates to serving the President and his agenda. What is not always apparent is the responsibility the OLA has to educate and protect, either as individuals or as an institution, the relevance and consideration of their interests in White House deliberations large and trivial. Often, congressional concerns are in direct competition for presidential attention with various White House constituencies. Assuring their concerns are appropriately considered in White House deliberations will likely increase the overall effectiveness of the decision-making and its ability to effectively execute on behalf of the President.

4.     The Director of OLA must work toward a process that manages and coordinates the contact and information flow between the Congress and senior advisors of the POTUS.

Often many of the senior advisors to POTUS have relationships with Congress, real and imagined. It is unlikely the director of OLA can or should spend much effort to prevent random contacts with members of Congress by other senior staff. Instead, they should, in coordination, with the White House Chief of Staff, make clear that those contacts are in service of an agreed upon overall strategy directed by OLA. All information gathered needs, regardless of the source, to be shared and processed by OLA and integrated into the larger strategy. Random contacts can produce valuable data but, if not managed, can disrupt the strategy, create costly confusion, and delays.

5.     The Director also needs to strike a balance between times spent on Capitol Hill and in attending high-level internal meetings.

The demands for the time of the Director will be extensive. There will be a daily struggle in determining how the Director will allocate his/her time between scheduled and unanticipated meetings in the White House and interacting with members of Congress. Developing an approach and expectation as to which meetings the Director will likely attend and which will be delegated to the appropriate staff will be essential to ensuring efficient OLA resources and effective representation of its perspective.

6.     The Director needs to decide how he wants to organize the OLA office in relationship to the Congress.

The structure of the OLA should be driven by the strategic goals of the White House. This structure would then provide a likely road map for the type of personnel needed and how they will be organized. For example, it could be organized by issue expertise, specific chamber experience, or some combination. The most common structure has a Deputy Assistant to the President for each Chamber with teams of special assistants to work at their direction. Depending on the President’s agenda or that of the Congress, there may be a staffer that covers specific issues or Congressional constituencies in both the House and Senate.

7.     The Director needs to build an explicit management structure for routine contact with staff both individually and as an organization.

Recognizing the Director’s time will be limited, it is nevertheless important to find enough of it to have substantive reliable interactions with OLA staff. Managing staff requests for guidance can be mostly managed through phone, email, or delegated to the principle deputy. However, conducting occasional in person meetings with the group or individuals is essential. Failure to provide timely guidance and general support to staff can create serious inefficiencies in managing the assignments, undermine success, and effect morale.

8.     The OLA must keep an obvious presence in each chamber of Congress.

The director must set explicit expectation that the jobs of the deputy assistants for each chamber and is to be conducted primarily in the Capital and not in the White House offices. As discussed, the Director will have significant time constraints on his/her ability for Congressional interactions. The Director’s limited presence in Congress must be managed so as not to suggest indifference to the institution’s importance. A major strategy for doing that is to ensure that the OLA keeps an obvious physical presence in each chamber of Congress, having regular contact with members and staff of both parties, and or having a physical location where OLA staff can always be found.

9.     The Director must make it clear that managing congressional relationships and Intelligence gathering are critical to the two important functions of White House legislative relationships.

The OLA is organized to promote the President’s policy agenda. However, it should use its regular access with Congress to deepen relationships on behalf of the President as well as gather political intelligence that might enhance the Administration’s effectiveness. Gathering information that is not readily apparent could help anticipate obstacles and or exploit opportunities. There is no magical formula for succeeding in this objective, but it requires engaging members and senior staff with curiosity and attentiveness.

10.  The Director should help shape the hiring, firing of directors of legislative affairs office throughout the government.

Managing the relationship to the OLA in each major governmental agency could be crucial to advancing the President’s agenda. A clear delineation of responsibilities among the involved agencies along with coordination of resources and consistency of message is essential for promoting or protecting the President’s interests. Establishing that the individuals hired to fill these roles were substantially influenced by the Director of OLA should facilitate a constructive and respectful relationship between the White House OLA and those of involved agencies.

The Director should attempt to cultivate these relationships by maintaining regular contact with these offices individually and or as a group. Theses interactions could impact success by presenting the opportunity to share and gain intelligence, give guidance, and collect feedback.



In sum, the Office of Legislative Affairs is central to the success of the President’s legislative priorities in Congress. The White House Office of Legislative Affairs must have an appreciation of the layers and dimensions of polarization and the tradeoffs involved in trying to curb its effects and purse the president’s agenda.

The director’s job is key to this. That job is large and complex, but the rewards in the furtherance of the President’s policies while working with White House staff, Member of Congress, key constituencies and other government officials, can be great and are essential to building better relations with Congress in an era of polarization.



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