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July 23, 2006
Many Ways Of Saying 'No'

The veto record of George Bush -- an extraordinarily short one -- gets analyzed in the New York Times today, which points out that Bush has not vetoed bills before because he had little cause to do so. Instead, the Times focuses on the rather nuanced manner in which Bush has managed to avoid vetoing legislation from a Congress completely controlled by his own party:

Franklin Delano Roosevelt rejected or failed to sign 635 bills during his 12 years in office, using his veto power to keep Congress — run by his fellow Democrats — subservient. Harry S. Truman vetoed 250 bills; Dwight D. Eisenhower, 181. Bill Clinton used one of 37 vetoes to reject a law banning a particular type of abortion.

But until last week, when President Bush vetoed a bill to expand federally supported embryonic stem cell research, the incumbent president — a man who has taken an especially aggressive approach to expanding executive authority — left the veto power untouched.

Conventional wisdom holds that Mr. Bush went more than five years without exercising his veto power simply because he did not have to: the Republicans who control Congress gave him everything he wanted.

That is, for the most part, true. But Mr. Bush has also found ways of exercising control over (or circumventing) Congress without using the veto. When Mr. Bush wanted to empower federal authorities to monitor the international communications of suspected terrorists, he did so by issuing a secret executive order, avoiding a possible legislative battle — and the potential veto that might go along with it.

And when Congress last year passed a legislative amendment barring cruel, inhumane and degrading treatment of detainees in American custody, Mr. Bush — who had threatened a veto but ultimately backed down — tacked a “signing statement” onto the measure, asserting that he could interpret the amendment as he deemed fit with his constitutional authority as commander in chief.

Most people lose sight of the relationship that Bush has with Congress, one that does not apply to any of the presidents mentioned above. Except for eighteen months when Jumpin' Jim Jeffords threw a bare majority of the Senate to the Democrats, Republicans have controlled both chambers of Congress for his entire presidency. Bush has had the opportunity to craft compromises within his own party that avoided the necessity to veto legislation. Roosevelt had to deal with a Congress that mistrusted his expansion of federal power (both GOP and Democats), and FDR proved them correct when he attempted to stack the Supreme Court. Truman dealt with a Congress in transition, while Ike had a solidly Democratic Congress for his entire stay in the White House. Bill Clinton had a Republican Congress, and still only issued 37 vetoes in eight years.

When one party controls both elected branches, the voters expect them to cooperate to enact their agenda. The Republicans have largely done just that, and Bush has not used the veto pen. He prefers to work behind the scenes, publicly threatening vetoes (as the Times points out, on 141 different occasions) and using that leverage to get the compromise he wants. That is the mark of a successful partnership, at least in political terms, although the results are certainly open to a lot of criticism.

The TImes also brings up the "signing statements" as a dodge around vetoes, but those statements mean nothing legally. Bush isn't the first president to use these, and all they do is record his state of mind when he signs the legislation. If he gets challenged on it in court, the White House can use this in the same manner that Congress uses the record of the debate in order to show state of mind. It doesn't let the President ignore the law any more than a non-binding resolution from Congress forces anyone to a specific action.

One bill that doesn't get mentioned by the Times is the BCRA. That's the one bill that should have received a veto for its attack on the Constitution. Had Bush vetoed that, no one would have made much out of the bill he vetoed this week.

UPDATE: A couple of corrections: Eisenhower did have a Republican Congress for the first two years, but a Democratic Congress in the other six years of his presidency. Bill Clinton had a Democratic House in his first two years, but lost that in the 1994 landslide that brought the Republicans into control for the first time since ... Eisenhower!

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Posted by Ed Morrissey at July 23, 2006 9:52 AM

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