Can President Bush Stay Veto-Free for Four More Years?

Posted January 20, 2005 at 1:12pm

In 1832, the orator and statesman Sen. Henry Clay (Ky.) surveyed the progress of American democracy and found the republic threatened by an instrument of power almost “totally irreconcilable” with representative government: the presidential veto.

“Ought the opinion of one man to overrule that of a legislative body, twice deliberately expressed!” Clay raged incredulously after President Andrew Jackson’s historic veto of the Bank Bill.

The founders, Clay said, had intended the prerogative to be used only “for instances of precipitate legislation, in unguarded moments.”

A mere 170-plus years later, Clay finally has a president after his own heart.

Backed by a GOP Congress with a parallel agenda and a determination to minimize conflict, President Bush is on a course to become the first two-term president since Thomas Jefferson never to issue a single veto.

Yet, as 40 intervening presidents could attest, the Jefferson model is tough to duplicate. Associate Senate Historian Donald Ritchie is one who is skeptical that the arrangement can be sustained for four more years.

“I would assume there will be some moments where the president will just say, ‘It’s not what I want’ and may veto it — maybe just for symbolic reasons,” Ritchie said.

He noted that many past presidents have vetoed bills to achieve parochial objectives. Jimmy Carter, for instance, used it “to show that he was in control.”

“It would be remarkable if Bush was able to keep it up for another term,” Ritchie said.

Challenges to Bush’s clean sheet — if any materialize — will most likely arise from new variables in the 109th Congress. Enhanced Republican majorities in the House and Senate have already shown signs of restiveness after four years of assisting the president’s bid for re-election. It remains to be seen whether Bush’s lame-duck status will limit his ability to call the shots on Capitol Hill.

Some fraying had already become evident during Bush’s first term. As a recession loomed and Republicans lined up behind tax cuts intended to stimulate growth, fiscal conservatives complained that action was not being taken to significantly cut spending.

Such concerns were muted thanks to Republican unity behind Bush’s re-election bid. But such tensions may reappear, and even worsen, as Bush faces lame-duck status.

Other legislative challenges loom as well. For instance, the White House continues to oppose the highway bill on spending grounds, despite strong bipartisan support for the measure in Congress. But with Members feeling pressure from their home districts to push the measure through, it is not clear how long lawmakers will tolerate the ongoing negotiations with the White House before forcing their leaders to act.

GOP strategists acknowledge that if a highway bill is eventually vetoed, an override would be all but assured.

What may keep Bush’s no-veto record intact, however, is a simple principle that GOP leaders have observed since Bush took office: If the president says he will veto a bill, don’t send it to him.

“In every case so far, we’ve said, ‘OK, we can put this aside for a moment and work on the things we can get done,’” one top House GOP strategist said. “Why send him something he’s not going to sign?”

The strategist, citing Social Security reform among other things, anticipated that leaders would need to work out differences with other Members — not with the White House.

“If we can’t get a consensus as a party [on the major issues], we won’t have anything for him to veto anyway,” he said.

Only the most sanguine Democrats expect GOP leaders to switch tactics and challenge Bush.

“I think it’s going to change,” one House Democratic leadership aide said, citing the larger GOP majorities in both chambers and Bush’s lame-duck status, which will inevitably make unity harder to enforce. “I just don’t think Bush wields all that much power anymore.”

Unified party control — intact for all but a year and a half of the president’s first term — only goes part of the way toward explaining the disappearance of the veto under Bush.

Recent presidents such as Carter and Lyndon Johnson clashed often with their fellow partisans on Capitol Hill. Even John F. Kennedy, who served less than three years in office, managed to veto 21 pieces of legislation.

One has to reach back all the way to James Garfield, the 20th president, to find a veto-less president, and he didn’t even serve a full year before being assassinated.

Partial-term Presidents William Henry Harrison, Zachary Taylor and Millard Fillmore never issued a veto, nor did one-termers John Adams and John Quincy Adams. Only Jefferson survived two terms without one.

GOP leadership insiders suggest that Republicans at both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue have learned to minimize frictions through constant interaction.

For instance, the leadership and the White House generally reach agreement on a price tag for spending measures early in the process, then try to make the legislation fit.

One GOP leadership aide said Bush administration representatives — from the legislative shop and elsewhere — are typically present at every key stage of a bill’s development. When sticking points appear, the White House can work in “real time” to resolve the issues, often through a quick phone call.

“One reason there haven’t been any vetoes is that they’ve understood the process all along,” the aide said.

Christopher Deering, a George Washington University political scientist, said that one reason why the GOP has been able to hold the legislative process together under unified government is that Congress passes many fewer bills than it once did. In addition, the measures Congress does pass tend to be much larger, such as regular omnibus spending packages.

Because these massive pieces of legislation usually have “something for everyone,” they are harder to veto.

Deering added that, historically, public approval of Congress has ebbed considerably when the legislature has clashed with the president — especially when one party only narrowly controls Congress. Even during the Vietnam War, he said, the mounting opposition to Lyndon Johnson from Congressional Democrats wound up diminishing Congress’ popularity as much as the president’s.

Narrow majorities “have an incentive to cooperate, because otherwise they look incapable of governing,” Deering said.