- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 25, 2006

On July 19, President Bush issued the first veto of his presidency on a bill to provide federal funding of stem cell research. It is a good example why presidents were given veto power by the Constitution.

I am reminded of some advice once given by former Sen. Bob Dole, Kansas Republican: “You can never go wrong voting for a bill that fails or against a bill that passes.” I’ve always remembered that because it was so true. The people who want a bill to pass will not mind if you voted against it as long as they get it anyway. But the people who opposed the bill will remember you stood with them.

I also remembered Mr. Dole’s advice because it’s one of those weird things that can be completely true for an individual but cannot be generalized. Obviously, it is impossible for every member of Congress to vote for a bill that fails, nor can they all vote against a bill that passes.

Getting back to the veto, this is one way a majority of Congress can have their cake and eat it, too. They can support a politically popular bill many would otherwise be compelled to vote against, knowing the president will take the heat for keeping it from becoming law. There might have been many fewer votes for the stem cell bill without the assurance of a veto.

Looking back over the history of presidential vetoes, it is clear there was a lot of winking and nodding going on between Congress and the White House. Presidents often gave it a pass, allowing members to vote for bills that would aid them politically but were bad policy. By vetoing such bills, everyone was happy. And if presidents used a pocket veto, it couldn’t be overridden, so Congress was saved from having to even try.

Franklin D. Roosevelt was the all-time champion at playing this game, issuing a record 635 vetoes, the bulk of them pocket vetoes, despite large Democratic majorities throughout his presidency. Many of these were on private relief bills that the congressional leadership let slide through only because a veto was assured.

Over the years, the ability of Congress and the White House to play this mutual back-scratching game has diminished for various reasons. A key one is that Congress passes many fewer bills than it used to. Legislating tends to be done largely by amendment to large bills that are harder to veto.

This has increased Congress’ power relative to the president, but it has also cost Congress the opportunity to play the Dole game. It is harder for it to say no to anyone, giving rise to increasing numbers of pork barrel projects and special deals unjustified on public policy grounds. This is why President Bush has repeatedly asked for line-item veto authority.

The problem isn’t limited to appropriations bills. Moreover, much of the waste in this area is already under the president’s control because the spending is specified in what is called report language that does not carry the force of law. Mr. Bush could in effect veto this stuff now if he wanted to. And because of his support for so many big spending initiatives, such as the Medicare drug bill, he lacks credibility as a guardian of the public purse, making it appear as if his calls for a line-item veto are just a way of diverting attention from his own failure to control spending.

In response, the White House notes that Mr. Bush often issues veto threats — 135 times through May, according to the Office of Management and Budget. But with no actual vetoes ever forthcoming, such threats have lost a great deal of credibility over time. Congress now mostly ignores them.

It has always amazed me that a president who so clearly understands international diplomacy must be backed by force to be effective should be so oblivious that the same thing applies domestically: Veto threats must be backed by actual vetoes from time to time to be credible. I believe just one veto of a spending bill in 2001 would have saved tens of billions of dollars of wasted spending.

When conservatives complain to the White House about its veto-phobia, they are always told Republican control of Congress is the main reason. But as Brookings Institution scholar Kathryn Tenpas notes in a new paper, in the postwar period presidents before George W. Bush averaged two vetoes per year during times when their own party controlled Congress. Mr. Bush is clearly an anomaly.

Bruce Bartlett is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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