- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 29, 2004

President Bush to date hasn’t erected a sign on the South Lawn of the White House declaring it a “veto-free zone.” But he might want to think about hammering one in now.

That’s because he’ll join a unique fraternity this fall, becoming only the eighth president in American history to complete an entire term without vetoing a bill. Even more remarkable, the seven other presidents with a veto?free record served during the 19th century and many of those less than a full four-year term. Mr. Bush could become the only president in the last century without a veto in a four-year term. James Garfield in 1881 was the last veto-less president, but he was assassinated a year into his first term. The last White House occupant to serve a veto-free full term was John Quincy Adams in the 1820s.

Slamming the breaks on this constitutional power tool demonstrates how this president operates in the legislative arena, but also outlines the contours of modern party leadership in the Congress — particularly this Republican majority. Mr. Bush and congressional Republicans have constructed a mutually helpful, symbiotic relationship that looks like it will endure. Avoiding veto confrontations is part of the foundation they’ve erected together.

Some chalk up the lack of veto fights to the same party controlling the executive and legislative branches. Yet unified party control is no guarantee of a veto drought. President Carter used the rejected legislation 31 times while serving with Democrat congressional majorities. Franklin Delano Roosevelt bested all U.S. presidents in the veto department, saying “no” to Congress a whopping 635 times during his tenure.

Mr. Bush’s veto reluctance is both consistent with his past as governor and part of his current and future legislative strategy with the Congress. While governor of Texas he used the veto sparingly compared to other Republicans such as Bill Clements or current state chief executive Rick Perry, whose relationships with Texas legislators were stormier (Mr. Perry, for example, recently vetoed almost as many bills in one session as Bush did in three).

Mr. Bush and longtime aides often admit they were somewhat surprised by the difference in raw partisanship between Austin and Washington. Still, Mr. Bush and his senior aides saw little political upside to forcing a series of showdowns with the Congress. They’ve made a concerted effort to address sticking points before they show up in legislation. “We work hard to eliminate problems very early in the process,” a White House aide told me.

Formally, the White House communicates veto threats to lawmakers through the Office of Management and Budget in the form of a Statement of Administration Policy (or a SAP as they are called on the Hill). SAPs are normally issued the day the House or Senate considers legislation on the floor, a fairly late stage in the legislative process to make a host of major changes. Yet the lateness of the notice often masks intense and lengthy behind-the-scenes discussions that can clear a number of objections before the legislation even reaches the point where the administration issues a SAP.

But while the White House may have worked hard to address potential objections early and not become trigger-happy with veto threats, Republicans in Congress were willing co-conspirators. “We see little political upside separating ourselves from this president,” a GOP leadership aide told me.

In an earlier era, with more internal diversity among both Democrats and Republicans, it may have been advantageous for either the president or Congress to display a streak of independence. That era has gone the way of the eight-track tape.

Over the past 20 years, marginal congressional districts declined, making constituencies more uniformly partisan. Now Republican lawmakers find it politically advantageous to align with Mr. Bush.

Mr. Bush’s low-intensity combat approach with Congress buttresses his “change the tone” strategy. Yet he’s been aided in this effort by Republicans in Congress who use their majority power to avoid embarrassing showdowns because they see little political upside to doing so. “Even though we don’t always agree with the White House, it would be rare for the Republican leadership to schedule a bill for floor consideration we know the President will veto,” a GOP leadership aide told me.

Some might predict a change in 2006, if Mr. Bush is re-elected and Republicans face the historically challenging midterm elections when the president’s party in Congress typically loses seats. Yet if Mr. Bush remains popular with Republicans, forcing confrontations remains a dubious strategy, meaning he might want to think about that sign on the South Lawn after all.

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