USC Price School of Public Policy

Policy Panel

“Branching Out: Policy Leadership and Legislative Relations under Reagan” Panel

By Matthew Kredell

Reagan Policy Panel From left: Jim Perry, Karen Hult, George Edwards, Matthew Beckmann, and Dean Jack Knott (moderator) Watch video »
Photo by Tom Queally

Ronald Reagan was a master at creating interpersonal relationships with people, a factor that served him well in his dealings with Congress, School of Policy, Planning and Development dean Jack H. Knott said in moderating the third panel of the Ronald Reagan Centennial Symposium at USC.

The panel, titled “Branching Out: Policy Leadership and Legislative Relations under Reagan,” took place Feb. 2 in front of students, faculty and community members at USC’s Davidson Conference Center.

Matthew Beckmann, associate professor of political science at UC Irvine, provided the main paper for discussion (“President Reagan’s Legislative Touch”). He was joined on the panel by George Edwards, professor of political science at Texas A&M, Karen Hult, director of graduate studies at Virginia Tech, and Jim Perry, professor of public and environmental affairs at Indiana University-Bloomington.

Tom Brokaw Matthew Beckmann delivers presentation at USC’s Davidson Conference Center
Photo by Tom Queally

In illustrating how Reagan used humor and his warm personality to establish relationships in Congress, Knott told the story of Reagan’s first dealings with the Democrat Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill, as relayed to him by political commentator Chris Matthews, once an aide and spokesman for O’Neill.

Though his staff advised against it, Reagan insisted that O’Neill was the first person he wanted to meet with after becoming president. They met in the Oval Office, sitting on opposite ends of the couch. The two staffs were nervous that the meeting was going to turn into a shouting match and be a terrible embarrassment. But Reagan sat down relaxed, with a big smile on his face, and told O’Neill a joke. Everyone laughed and O’Neill responded with one of his own. Soon they were at the center of the couch and engaged in conversation. They had a close relationship from then on, so much so that O’Neill was the first non-family member Reagan invited into his hospital room after the assassination attempt. Though they disagreed fundamentally on many important political principles, they worked hard to forge agreements based on compromise to pass important policies.

Reagan pushed an ambitious agenda before an antagonistic Congress to great effect. His first key policy success was the Economic Recovery Tax Act of 1981. He embarked on an aggressive appeal, bringing the swing voters up to Camp David. Then he flew back to Washington and gave a televised speech in his usual affable manner, like a friend talking to another friend about what he proposed to do. The speech was so successful that people overloaded the Capitol switchboard, besieging these moderate Democrats with phone calls to support Reagan’s bill.

“When we think of what can a president do to effect change, 1981 is a place practitioners tend to look and say that was a moment,” Beckmann said.

Edwards saw it a bit differently. He admitted that there has never been a response like that from the American people since, but called it more the president mobilizing his supporters rather than changing public opinion.

“A president can’t create opportunity but what he can do is exploit opportunity,” Edwards said. “When the president announced his program for economic recovery in February of 1981, he already had momentum and few were standing in the way. He was speaking to an assembly of desperate legislators who were predisposed to grant him extraordinary latitude to find a solution to the nation’s woes.”

Beckmann presented his research on the impact presidents make when they actively lobby for a bill. When Reagan did not lobby for legislation, it still went his way 3 percent of the time. When he did solicit legislative votes, the bill passed 39 percent of the time. That is an increase of 36 percent. Beckmann said a 30-percent increase is the average for presidents after World War II.

Perry brought up Reagan’s reaction to the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization strike of 1981 as perhaps his policy decision that had the greatest lasting impact. The union declared a strike on Aug. 3, 1981, seeking better working conditions, higher pay and a shorter work week. In doing so, the union violated a law that banned strikes by government unions. Reagan declared the PATCO strike a “peril to national safety” and ordered those remaining on strike to return to work within 48 hours or forfeit their jobs. Two days later, Reagan followed through on the threat and fired 11,345 air traffic controllers. He assigned the transportation secretary to find replacements, including some military controllers. He also outlawed those fired from ever returning to federal employment in their lifetime, though the ban was later rescinded by President Bill Clinton.

“It had the consequence of saying it’s OK to fire people who strike and you can replace them,” Perry said. “Prior to that, there was a reluctance to take that sort of firm action on the part of employers. The path of union-employer relations changed forever.”