Dust Off That Veto Pen

COMMENTARY Budget and Spending

Dust Off That Veto Pen

Sep 6th, 2001 3 min read
Phillip N. Truluck

Senior Advisor

Phil Truluck has been responsible for developing and maintaining the think tank’s physical and intellectual presence on Capitol Hill.

Reports of a shrinking budget surplus have prompted a rash of hand-wringing among federal lawmakers as they prepare to resume work on the spending bills they left behind at the beginning of August. Some warn that the Social Security surplus will have to be tapped. How can Congress cope?

It's hard to sympathize, though, when you consider the fact that the nine spending bills passed by the House of Representatives so far are loaded with a record amount of "pork" projects that threatens to erase whatever's left of this year's surplus.

Unfortunately, the Bush administration seems unnecessarily ready to accept this fact. A high-ranking White House official opined before the recess that pork, alas, is "an acceptable cost of doing business with Congress."

The phrase sounds uncomfortably similar to that used by big-city contractors to justify the practice of greasing the palms of corrupt zoning officials, building inspectors and union officers to get approval of legitimate construction projects. Does President Bush have no choice but to negotiate from the wrong end of a pork barrel?

It's certainly an expensive way to do business. House members have salted fiscal year 2002 spending bills with nearly 19,000 in-district projects worth a combined $280 billion -- both new records. We're talking about two out of every five dollars they have under their control.

President Bush can't let this pork-packed spending stand if he wants to bring the federal budget under control. Early on, he laid down his budget marker: a 4 percent overall increase in discretionary spending. Though only half the rate of spending hikes pushed through in President Clinton's last year in office, it's still a generous offer.

But Congress so far has shown itself unable to live within these bounds -- which is why it's time for President Bush to drop his "compromise and accommodate" strategy and pick up his veto pen.

Given all the murmuring from some lawmakers about the need to roll back the president's prized tax cut, the president should throw down the gauntlet and announce his intention to veto all spending bills that surpass the spending target. And he must follow through. The promise to veto pork-filled spending bills must be as firm and as committed as the promise to cut taxes.

Sure, the big spenders will be quick to deplore the shift. But a veto strategy is neither a sign of partisanship (pork knows no party) nor one of weakness. Far from being a "negative" approach to governing, it's a sign of strong, effective leadership.

History shows the most successful and respected presidents haven't been shy in using the veto. Franklin D. Roosevelt, for example, was a great devotee of the veto strategy and used it quite successfully to bring the legislative branch to heel when he felt it was straying too far from his policies. He is quoted as saying, when having problems with Congress: "Find me a bill I can veto!"

During his years as president, Roosevelt averaged 48 vetoes per year. By way of comparison, the first President Bush issued 44 vetoes throughout his four-year term. President Clinton vetoed only 37 bills during his two terms.

Interestingly, the presidents historians frequently rank as America's greatest were generally those most willing to use the veto. Perhaps this is because the veto is a powerful tool, well suited for an activist president. It is a remarkably successful tool, too: Only 4 percent of all presidential vetoes -- going all the way back to George Washington -- have been overridden by Congress. And President Bush would seem to have enough votes in Congress to use his veto pen with great authority.

The president's willingness to use every tool at his disposal to control federal spending becomes more and more critical with every projection of a dwindling budget surplus. The Congressional Budget Office recently trimmed its estimate of this year's budget surplus from the $200 billion it had projected in June to $153 billion.

That's why every dollar wasted in pork-barrel spending looms large. The more the big spenders can drive up spending (and drive down the surplus), the more "evidence" they amass to demonstrate the "need" to roll back tax relief.

Excessive spending can lead to only two possible outcomes: a resumption of federal deficits or an economically debilitating tax hike. Neither is acceptable. So dust off that box of pens, Mr. President, and start vetoing.

Phillip Truluck is the chief operating officer of The Heritage Foundation (www.heritage.org), a Washington-based public policy research institute.

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