Campus News

Parthemos Lecture focuses on president, ‘fourth Congress’

President Barack Obama may face his toughest congressional opposition yet when a new Congress convenes in January after the midterm elections.

If that’s the case, it would follow a historical pattern for the relationships of U.S. presidents with their fourth Congresses, according to David Mayhew, a renowned congressional scholar and the Sterling Professor of Political Science at Yale University, at the George S. Parthemos Lecture Oct. 15 at the Richard B. Russell Building Special Collections Libraries. A “fourth Congress” is the legislature a second-term president faces after midterm elections.

For a president, Mayhew said, “Unquestionably, the fourth Congress is the worst.”

By the time a president has been in office six years, he usually faces a Congress made up of more members of the opposing party and has a harder time pushing through his legislative agendas.

“‘Hope’ and ‘change,’ those are yesterday’s stories,” Mayhew said.

Despite the discord, Mayhew said, a two-term president’s final two years in office still can be legislatively productive.

During his visit to UGA, Mayhew arrived days before the lecture to speak in classrooms and meet with faculty and students.

Mayhew’s lecture centered on the history of fourth Congresses in the 20th and 21st centuries, and what that history might say about Obama’s final two years in office.

During the lecture, Mayhew noted that six former two-term presidents—Woodrow Wilson, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Harry Truman, Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush—faced a hostile fourth Congress typically made up of majorities of the opposing party. Mayhew said this tends to lead to increased gridlock and little hope of passing the president’s domestic policy agenda.

Despite the historical friction, significant legislation historically still gets passed and presidents remain influential in the process, Mayhew said.

This legislation can include international trade agreements and compromises between the president and Congress on domestic policy.

But oftentimes, it is major events that shape the legislative agenda. That’s what happened for Bush’s fourth Congress, which passed a bank bailout package in response to the 2008 financial crisis.

“Looking at these presidents in these fourth Congresses,” he said, “I’m struck by how much the presidency is a crisis management office.”

Sponsored by the School of Public and International Affairs’ political science department, the George S. Parthemos lecture is named after a UGA political science professor and administrator who died in 1984. Each year, the Parthemos Lecture brings to Athens a prominent political scholar.

Mayhew is author of the influential book Congress: The Electoral Connection as well as Divided We Govern and Partisan Balance: Why Political Parties Don’t Kill the U.S. Constitution.