Benjamin Harrison - Cool relations with congress



In his dealings with Congress, always a complex, high-risk area for presidents, Harrison was handicapped by the frequent poverty of his relations with Capitol Hill's key power holders. Trouble sometimes sprang from dissatisfaction with Harrison's award of appointments, particularly when party factions other than those of the individual legislators were rewarded with patronage. Harrison's penchant for appointing newspaper editors and publishers to diplomatic and other posts angered senators aggrieved by some past journalistic attack or exposé. The Senate, for example, rejected Harrison's nominee for ambassador to Germany, the distinguished Cincinnati editor Murat Halstead, who had once flayed the chamber for its easy tolerance of corruption in its ranks. Halstead's rejection was Harrison's first defeat from his party.

The president's personality did not wear well with legislators. Senators and congressmen were put off by his ready recourse to high principle and legal niceties. Others were offended by his seeming coldness. "There are bitter complaints," a critic reported. "Senators call and say their say to him, and he stands silent.. . . As one Senator says: 'It's like talking to a hitching post.' " Some legislators were put off by Harrison's displays of a lack of political sense. He once grasped Quay's hand and said solemnly, "Providence has given us the victory." The veteran boss and senator, taken aback, observed afterward that Harrison was "a political tenderfoot. He ought to know that Providence hadn't a damn thing to do with it!" Harrison's most vitriolic detractor was House Speaker Thomas B. Reed. Their severest clashes were over a patronage appointment and the president's exercise of his pardoning power, and the individuals who benefited were the only "two personal enemies" in Reed's life. Imbued with a Whig perspective, especially its precept of legislative supremacy, Harrison did not initiate legislation. His most daring venture was to reecho the Republican platform.

Harrison's approach to legislative leadership was largely one of emphasizing his role as public leader, of presenting policy proposals in his arresting rhetorical and an analytical style, to rally the public behind them. Unfortunately for Harrison, these efforts were of little avail, since public support steadily diminished as his administration proceeded. Nonetheless, Harrison was aggressive in asserting personal influence. He held informal dinners and receptions for legislative leaders, informing them of items he wanted incorporated in bills. He made few vetoes, although he often used the threat of veto profitably. In both legislative houses he was hampered by divisions within his party over the allocation of spoils. In the Senate, where Republicans enjoyed only a bare majority, a "silver bloc" of sixteen western senators held the balance of power. To implement his party's platform on the tariff and the civil rights of blacks, Harrison needed support from Silver Republicans, as they were called, much as they needed his backing for a stronger silver law.





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