March 10, 2004

March 10, 2004 | Commentary on Federal Budget

The Power of "No"

Suppose you're running a business, and one employee can't get to work on time. You privately warn him, then publicly warn him, but he's still always late. Your other employees are starting to wonder if the boss means business.


Eventually you must send a message to the whole company by firing the tardy employee.


President Bush may soon face a similar dilemma. During the first three years of his presidency, he's been reluctant to use his veto power. So reluctant, in fact, that he's never vetoed a bill, and no president this century has completed his term without a veto.


Bush has already passed up some golden opportunities to use the veto. In 2002, he opted to sign the McCain-Feingold campaign finance reform bill, even though the president admitted it raised "some legitimate constitutional questions." His mistake was compounded last year, when the Supreme Court voted 5-4 to allow all provisions of the law to stand.


The president also signed a $180 billion farm bill two years ago. It locked us into 10 years of wasteful subsidies and corporate welfare. We would have been better served if Bush had vetoed the entire bill and told Congress to come back with a more modest, more focused bill.


So far Bush has threatened to use the veto dozens of times, but he has never actually followed through, even when lawmakers passed bad bills. Sometimes an empty threat is worse than no threat at all. Last fall, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., told The Hill newspaper, "since President Bush has not used his veto power, there is a little testing going on."


That testing now involves the highway bill.

           
The president has proposed spending some $256 billion on transportation over the next six years. That's a lot of money, but at least the president's measure is tied to the gas tax - virtually all the federal money would be supplied by the 18 cents per gallon tax drivers pay. In this era of exploding budget deficits, that makes sense.

           
But, like the wayward employee who just can't make it to work on time, too many lawmakers see the highway bill as a "make-work" measure, and they're eager to spend as much as possible. The Senate has signed off on a $318 billion measure, which would add about $10 billion per year to the federal deficit.

           
The proposed House bill is even worse. It would cost an estimated $375 billion, and lawmakers want to make up the difference by imposing $125 billion in new gas taxes. That doesn't make much sense, especially with gas prices already soaring.

           
A veto would demonstrate some much-needed presidential leadership and would force all sides to go back to the drawing board and craft a better plan. As my Heritage Foundation colleague Ronald Utt has pointed out, the only difference between the president's plan and the one proposed by lawmakers is that his would waste less taxpayer money.

           
A better plan would make money available to states and local governments, without all the federal mandates and pork barrel projects lawmakers currently insist on. This would allow local groups to focus on building necessary roads in their regions. In return, Washington should set strong standards, and demand results. It's not a novel concept - the same process is behind the "No Child Left Behind" act.

           
It's always difficult for lawmakers to control their spending impulses during an election year. Still, with the deficit growing, President Bush must show lawmakers he's serious about sticking to a budget. The president has done the right thing by warning he will veto the Senate bill. Now, he must show he's truly willing to use his veto, if that's what's necessary to put the brakes on federal spending.

About the Author

Edwin J. Feulner, Ph.D. Founder, Chairman of the Asian Studies Center, and Chung Ju-yung Fellow
Founder's Office

Related Issues: Federal Budget