The Iowa Caucus and upcoming New Hampshire Primary have us very excited. In a way, this is probably a good thing: a persistent apathy would likely be a bad sign for a democracy.
One thing we've observed is that folks are very excited about the proposed policies of each candidate. This is a great thing: it adds some substance to a debate that can often be dominated by more superficial stuff.
But there's an opportunity to consider the candidates at a higher level of sophistication: how will they accomplish their goals?
While we know the president is not a monarch, but as a country we seem to have a very strong attachment to the agenda the President sets forth--we may even believe that the President will dominate the legislative agenda during their tenure.
This is an opportunity to remember the duties of the President versus those of Congress, to get an idea of how we might expect to see a President's agenda be enacted or not.
The Powers of the President
The first important part is outlined in Article II, Section 2 of the Constitution:
The President shall be Commander in Chief of the Army and Navy of the United States, and of the Militia of the several States, when called into the actual Service of the United States; he may require the Opinion, in writing, of the principal Officer in each of the executive Departments, upon any Subject relating to the Duties of their respective Offices, and he shall have Power to grant Reprieves and Pardons for Offenses against the United States, except in Cases of Impeachment.
He shall have Power, by and with the Advice and Consent of the Senate, to make Treaties, provided two thirds of the Senators present concur; and he shall nominate, and by and with the Advice and Consent of the Senate, shall appoint Ambassadors, other public Ministers and Consuls, Judges of the supreme Court, and all other Officers of the United States, whose Appointments are not herein otherwise provided for, and which shall be established by Law: but the Congress may by Law vest the Appointment of such inferior Officers, as they think proper, in the President alone, in the Courts of Law, or in the Heads of Departments.
The President shall have Power to fill up all Vacancies that may happen during the Recess of the Senate, by granting Commissions which shall expire at the End of their next Session.
The second is in Section 3:
he shall take Care that the Laws be faithfully executed.
This clause in Section 3 gives the President a number of powers that have have to do with executing the very large stack of legislation over US history. It's where executive orders come from, and it's how the President is able to make limited policy decisions in things like the Bureau of Land Management, Health and Human Services department, the military, and other branches that have been created by past legislation.
What the President can't do, of course, is create new laws, taxes, and the like. Those are reserved to Congress in Article I Section 8.
Case law and precedent over the past few centuries has given Congress some breadth in the interpretation of these duties--particularly from the interstate commerce clause.
Most Americans know that the President doesn't pass legislation. In the past, as Presidents have tried to over-step their bounds into skipping Congress to pursue an agenda, they've usually been struck down by the Supreme Court as acting outside of the Constitution.
But while we know this, we need to remember during the election that Congress has even more power to set the legislative agenda than the President, and the President won't be able to get far in their agenda without getting Congress on board to vote for it.
So this election season, remember: your Congresspeople and Senators are going to have at least as big an impact on policy over the next 4 years as the President. The Presidential race is probably a lot more exciting, but if you're excited about a particular policy package, neglecting the Congressional race is going to lead to a lot of disappointment.