WYSONG: Vetoing the veto

Keep debt ceiling a perpetual issue with short extensions

Conventional wisdom holds that President Obama can use the veto to prevent Republicans from dismantling his agenda. Accordingly, we are told we must limit our expectations. But these are not conventional times, and the conventional thinkers are wrong, as usual. Republicans can downsize government, and Mr. Obama will sign the bills to do so.

The Obama administration must go to Congress to increase the debt ceiling. Until now, this act has been viewed as a mere formality, so the bill moves through the House and Senate with little fanfare. Everyone denounces the situation, but no one wants to shut down the government.

Winning the House and whittling the Senate down to 52 Democrats this month did not give the Republicans a victory - only the tools for victory. The debt ceiling is the key to victory.

All spending bills must originate in the House of Representatives. If the House would not increase the debt ceiling year by year, but only month by month, debt would become the perpetual issue. Although it may appear to be inefficient legislatively, this strategy can accomplish the mandate of 2010.

Each month, the House could agree to increase the debt ceiling if - and only if - one key program were reduced or eliminated to offset the overspending. Just one sacred cow, and the less popular it is, the better.

Finally, debt and spending would be bound together in one conversation.

If House Democrats and Republicans in name only block such a bill, it paints targets on their backs for the 2012 elections. If they cannot block the bill, it goes to the Senate, where the scenario is repeated.

Twenty-three Democratic senators must wage re-election campaigns in 2012, and after this year’s elections, few of them are sleeping well. They would have to choose between the shutdown and a single special-interest group.

If they choose to shut down the government, that simply enlarges the pulpit and publicizes the debate over debt and spending. If conservatives cannot win that argument, there is no hope they can save this great nation.

If Mr. Obama chooses to veto, he must justify shutting down the entire government to save one program. It would not affect all of the nation’s entitlement junkies but only a small percentage of them. This puts the relatively few affected in direct conflict with the vast majority who are unaffected and do not want their benefits interrupted.

If a vetoed bill is returned to Congress, there remains a substantial chance that endangered Democrats would vote to override the veto. If Democrats were to shut down the government to save a single, unpopular program, they would look like idiots.

Democratic arguments would grow more wearisome and less effective with each monthly battle, while the Republican position would be strengthened. By tying debt to spending cuts, Republicans make good policy and good politics at the same time.

Ronald Reagan famously said, “Nothing is so permanent as a temporary government program.” But this strategy of monthly program cuts could terminate many wasteful government programs.

If Mr. Obama’s veto is overridden, it must be a bipartisan override, in which case, Mr. Obama becomes a marginalized figure and a lame duck. Knowing this, he would be very reluctant to risk his presidency. Public opinion would never support shutting down the government for a single unpopular program.

For Republicans, the most difficult part of this strategy would be choosing the programs. Like mosquitos at a nudist colony, they have an abundance of tempting targets.

A good first step would be to freeze federal salaries and benefits under the auspices of shared sacrifice. How can federal workers continue to get such salaries and benefits in the face of the financial austerity forced on the rest of the citizens? Why should federal employees be the only class insulated from the recession? Who could make the case for shutting down the government to save pay raises for bureaucrats?

The time to begin is now. Conservatives can and must veto the veto.

Gordon J. Wysong, who has run four manufacturing businesses, served as a commissioner in Cobb County, Ga., during the 1990s when the county achieved the highest credit rating of any local government in America.

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