Reagan's Trump Card: The Veto

Report Political Process

Reagan's Trump Card: The Veto

July 8, 1985 14 min read Download Report
James Moore
McKenna Senior Fellow in Political Economy

(Archived document, may contain errors)

443 July 8, 1985 REAGAN'S TRUMP CARD: THE VETO Holding down government spenfing is like protecting your virtue You have to learn to say no.

Ronald Reagan INTRODUCTION Seldom has a President adopted a tougher stance with a Congress than has Ronald Reagan in the f irst months of his second term vowed to veto congressional efforts to raise taxes or pass budget-busting spending bills. He even has taunted Congress to !'make my day by passing a tax increase. The message is clear and welcome Ronald Reagan would appear t o relish vetoing the actions of an irresponsible Congress. He seems to recognize that the veto is a President's trump card.

The problem is that, despite this tough talk, Reagan actually has been very timid in playing this trump thus far in his presidency.

This apparent aversion to vetoing may seriously impair Reagan's ability to prod Congress to act responsibly, particularly in slashing federal spending-where few major victories have been won since 1981 He has I I I I I I An aggressive veto strategy is fea sible and necessary if the Reagan team is to continue to reduce the size and role of the federal government. Reagan's lopsided electoral victory last November demonstrated that he has very broad public support to carry through on veto threats. And further m ore, the more fractious and independent minded Congress now confronting Reagan may make the veto vital for reasserting the presidential role in the legislative process. In i. Donald Rothberg, Associated Press, March 5, 1980.short, Reagan is in an unusuall y strategic position to adopt an aggressive veto strategy. Political factors are likely to make it increasingly essential for him to do so. The fate of the Reagan revolution well may depend on how skillfully he wields the veto weapon THE VETO AND PRESIDENT IAL ACTIVISM The veto is perhaps the President's most formidable constitutional power.

Constitution, which governs the legislative process, because it makes the President the central figure presiding over legislative affairs.

The importance of the veto has been underscored most concisely by historian James Bryce The veto was placed in Article I of the The strength of the Congress consists in the right to pass statuzes; the strength of,the president in his right to veto them.

Veto power has two components 8 First, it can block a measure that a President opposes, providing he can muster one-third support of either house to uphold his veto presidential vetFes have been overridden, the presidential veto power is considerable legislation into statutes that con form to administration goals.

William Timmons, Gerald Ford's chief congressional liaison, believes that, as a result of Ford's 66 vetoes in two years, some 20 to 30 bills were "cleaned up sufficiently" by Fongress so that the President could, with clear conscience, sign them.

Those Presidents who have proven most skillful in dealing with Congress have tended to use the veto aggressively. During the early years of the Republic the veto was considered to be such a powerful weapon that Presidents reserved it for bills deemed unconstitutional.

Andrew Jackson, one of the most legislatively successful Presidents in Since only about 5 percent of all Second, merely the threat to veto often can mold 2. Quoted in Jong R. Lee, "Presidential Vetoes from Washington to Nixon Journal of Politics, Vol. 37, 1975, p. 522 3. Charles L. Black, Jr Some Thoughts on the Veto," Law and ContemDorarv Problems Spring 1976 p. 92 4. Erwin C. Hargrove and Michael Nelson, Presidents. Politics. and Policv (Baltimore Maryland: Johns Hopki n s University Press, 1984 p. 209 2history, broke with this tradition by blocking the passage of bills simply because "they didn't commend themselves as being wise W' The veto, however, was not used extensively by any President until after the Civil War. Ab raham Lincoln, for instance, vetoed six bills during his four presidential years vetoed from 1789 to 1865.

And altogether, only 57 bills were In the contentious years after the war, the veto finally came into regular use. President Grover Cleveland, for instance, eclipsed all previous Presidents with a mammoth 414 vetoes during eight years in office.

Early in this century, Woodrow Wilson, himself a Constitutional scholar, contended that a president activeTin the legislative process must routinely exercise his right to veto whose 635 vetoes make him the uncontested veto champion, held similar views; he believed that, rather than confirming presidential weakness frequent employment of the veto effectively reasserts presidential primacy over legislative affai r s. Indeed, whenever Congress became recalcitrant or unruly during his twelve years in office, FDR reportedly demanded of his aides: "Find me a bill I can veto.Il8 Harry Truman, faced with a hostile Congress during much of his term, vetoed almost as freque n tly. Among the controversial bills vetoed by Truman were measures which would have authorized segregated schools on federal property, and provided draft deferments for farm workers. Truman's tough stance with Congress became a major theme of his successfu l 1948 reelection campaign. Dwight Eisenhower relied heavily on the veto duEing the latter part of his presidency to reassert presidential authority over an increasingly antagonistic Congress. During his second term, Eisenhower vetoed a water projects bill , a bill providing high price supports to wheat farmers, and a proposal to subsidize lead and zinc producers. He twice vetoed a large omnibus housing bill, forcing Congress to submit a more acceptable proposal. Ike's top congressional liaison, Bryce Harlow notes that during the latter part of his presidency Eisenhower "made a conscious decision to be more aggressive--more confrontational with Congress if need be--to Franklin Roosevelt 5. Kendrick Lee Veto Power of the President," Editorial Research ReDorts, April 1947 p. 296 6. Ibid., p. 298 7. Black, OD. cit p. 88 8. Richard Neustadt, Presidential Power (New York: John Wiley Sons, 1960), p. 84 3-reestablish his declining power base regarded the veto as a sign of legislative activism great" have far higher v e to utilization rates than those rated llaveragell or llfailuresll (see Table 1 Compromise with Congress is not always, as many would have Reagan believe, a sign of llstatesmanship.ll Rather, it is often an indication of ineffective leadership According to 9 Harlow, Ike In general, Presidents ranked by historians as llgreatll or "near That activist Presidents have tended to be heavy veto users does not mean that a President must veto frequently to be successful, or that Presidents who veto often will necessar ily be successful. The historical record, nevertheless, does underscore the fact that the veto in the hands of an activist President can be a vital tool to overcome political and institutional barriers to translating his agenda into public policy.

REAGAN'S USE OF THE VETO During Reagan's first term, he vetoed only 39 bills, placing him slightly below average in historical terms (see.Table 2 The Reagan White House defends its sparing use of the veto by arguing that the President has been faced with very few bills deserving the veto. Said White House Chief of Staff Donald Regan when asked why more appropriations bills have not been vetoed I1Congress keeps slipping in, just over the edge,Just taking a little bit so there has been nothing mammoth to veto.11 A s e cond White House defense of its veto record is that the Administration has been very adroit in hammering out compromises with key members of Congress, rather than taking an unyielding confrontational approach and then having to veto unacceptable legislati on.

House does not want to waste the vital political capital purportedly consumed by vetoing legislation of marginal importance. consultant Paul Charles Light, for example, maintains that vetoes may alter the climate in Congress, creating greater hostility and resistance 1111 Administration officials also contend that the White Political 9. Conversation with Bryce Harlow, April 1985 10. Quoted in David R. Burton If Congress Is Spendthrift, Where Are Reagan's Vetoes The Wall Street Journal, September 11, 19 8 4 I I 11. Paul Charles Light, The President's Agenda (Baltimore, Maryland: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1984 p. 114 4- -4 u1 a k PI y1 0 m c k 0 r u1 4 X h a u1 al 0 4J a 3 a m N m N 0 a id P 4J 0 B I I I I I I I I I I I I I I I I I I I I I I I I I I I I I I I I I I I I I I I I I I I I I I I I I I I I I I I I I I I I I I I I I I I I I I I I I I I I 5W 4 k k 0 g I I I I I I I I I I I I I I I I I I I Nww00d*mln00ln0*N dNmOCOCOdmNOoNbw0 d d dd d m a, 0 C 8 Gk Id0 5W Y m a, W -d k k 0 rl k a, PI 111 a, 0 C g I Id c 0 111 a, 111 a, 0 C g I I I I I I I I I I I I I I I I 0 JJ a, 0 -4 w VI 0 c -4 E Id a, sr rl Id -4 a, W -4 m a 2 I I k PI I I c, d -ai h, a 0 2 I a, 0 k VJ k a, C, k a u pc &I 2 0 Fr L3 cr rlsloo -4Idoo z=xux 6Has There Been Nothina to Veto?

It seems that there should have been plenty of bills for Ronald Reagan to veto. After all, a series of congressional spending bills have pushed the bufiget far above the level the Administration projected in 19

81. The llcompromisesl' obtained by the White House resulted in 1984 federal spending some $80 billion higher than Reagan pledged it would be in 19

80. Indeed, government spending under Reagan as a pescentage of GNP, has accelerated at a faster pace than under Carter program that the White House ha s sought to terminate, including Amtrak, Job Corps, the.Smal1 Business Administration, and Export-Import Bank direct loans, to name but a few which he chose to sign rather than veto. The 1983 Dairy and Tobacco Bill, for instance, contained massive subsidi es for milk producers and North Carolina tobacco growers. It was incompatible with Reagan's firmly stated goal of shifting U.S. agriculture back to market-oriented conditions. Nevertheless, the President signed it into law.

Authorization Bill, which, despite its name, was little more than a package of pork barrel social spending programs that the White House has been trying to eliminate.

Grants, Low Income Energy Assistance, and various Department of Education programs. And last fall a Vocational Education authorization bill won the President's signature, despite his insistence that vocational education is primarily a responsibility of state and local governments percent above his budget request And Congress has preserved virtually every domestic Congress h as presented Reagan plenty of bills of dubious merit More recently Reagan signed the 1984 Head Start These include Community Services Block The14bill authorized spending levels 30 Clearly there have been plenty of bills that President Reagan could have ve t oed. He simply chose not to do so The Pitfalls of a Strateav of Commomise To be sure, Reagan achieved considerable legislative success early in his.first term, most notably in securing the passage of tax cuts and defense increases. Then his hitting streak faltered badly 12. For a detailed discussion of Reagan's failure to cut federal spending during his first term, see Stuart M. Butler, Privatizing Federal SDendinq (New York: Universe Books 1985 pp. 5-31; and Doug Bandow The Budget Revolution That Wasn't R e ason, May 1985, PP. 39-44 13; Bandow, OD. cit p. 40 14 Bill Shifts Vocational Education Emphasis," Conmessional Ouarterlv Almanac, 1984 p. 455 7- The Conaressional Quarterly calculates that Reagan's success rate as measured by ''victories on congressional votes where the president took a clear-cut position started at 82.4 percent in 1981 and then dropped to 72.4 psercent in 1982 67.1 percent in 1983, and 65.8 percent in 19

84. Surely it is time for the White House to end this slump by changing tactics.

Co mpromise, moreover, is only a useful tool if it leads to real victories at the bargaining table federal spending, it is unclear just what concessions the Administration has won from Congress But given the continued growth of The Veto and Political Capital The least persuasive rationale for Reagan's veto shyness is that Yet the veto the Administration wants to conserve political capital actually may consume less political capital than any of the many other options available to the President. University of O k lahoma political scientist Gary Copeland, who has thoroughly studied the veto power explains The veto certainly consumes less political capital than proposing legislation, and then spending months bargaining to line up the votes to assure the bill's passa ge.1'" Once a veto is made, the political burden shifts'to the bill's proponents from the President.

The override battle, moreover, typically lasts no more than two weeks. And most important, the President needs only to obtain one-third of the votes cast i n one chamber to sustain his veto. On the other hand, a compromise requires a majority in both chambers.

Finally, since strong Presidents have tended to be heavy users of the veto (see Table l using the veto surely does not drain political capital and impose debilitating political costs.

In sum, there is no reason for Ronald Reagan to hesitate vetoing a bill that violates his principles or undermines his policies the,-contrary, the main beneficiaries of the his veto policy have been To Re5gan' s congressi onal opponents WHY REAGAN SHOULD VETO MORE IN HIS SECOND TERM Reagan's landslide electoral victory last November positions him Copeland feels that ideally to wield the veto more aggressively veto, Gary Copeland discovered that Presidents enjoying huge ele c toral victories normally employed the veto frequently In his analysis of the 15 1984 Partnership More Rhetoric Than Voting Conerressional Ouarterlv, October 27 1984, p. 2802 16. Conversation with Gary Copeland, April 1985 8Reagan1.s overwhelming victory i n the 1984 election will allow him to pursue as aggressive a veto policy as any President has.

President, after all, rightfully can claim a popular mandate. And the size of his victory will facilitate the coalition building necessary to sustain vetoes The Further, once Reagan's election mandate loses some of its momentum, he is likely to face a Congress antagonistic toward his second term agenda and more assertive during a President's incumbency. Face with a similar situation, Eisenhower used numerous seco n d term vetoes successfully to shift power back to the executive The lesson of history is that Congress grows more Usincr the Veto to Control Federal SDendinq Reagan should move quickly to wield the veto to tackle the issue atop his legislative agenda-cont r olling federal spending. With the annual budget deficit approaching 200 billion, a number of alternative approaches to cutting federal spending have been proposed. A legislated line-item veto, for instance, would allow the President to strike out unfavora b le provisions of an otherwise acceptable spending bill into the private sector, or privatization, has helped balance the books in Great Britain and U.S. municipal governments The shifting of federal assets and services In the short term, these strategies a re not available As such Reagan must start to veto spending bills routinely if he is to make any dent in federal spending. The compromise strategy has failed, and its prospects for the future do not appear bright. Office of Management and Budget Director D avid Stockman admits that eliminating even some of the most egregiously wasteful domestic programs is unlikely. Said Stockman recently: "1 can't foresee that anytime in this decade we will have the kind of people in Congress who will abolish these things. If Congress dares not abolish "these things," then the President can with his veto to be veto shy. Ironically, Gerald Ford, whom Reagan condemned in 1976 as "soft on spending," vetoed appropriation bills at a rate four times that of Reagan Yet Reagan cont inues For the Administration to curb the spending epidemic, the White House must set stringent benchmark levels for domestic spending.

Reagan then should vow to veto all appropriations bills surpassing these levels, just as he has vowed to veto any tax increase stand.against a tax increase clearly has intimidated Congress.

The Such a veto strategy can bring spending down. Past experience shows it can work. Example: experts widely acknowledged that Gerald 17 Ronald Reagan Veto," The Wall Street Journal, Jan uary 31, 1984, editorial page 9Ford's 3.9 spending vetoes contributed to markedly lower .spending levels than Congress otherwise would have passed veto of a continuing resolution, shutting down the government for a day, successfully achieved its objective him a revised bill with lower spending levels, but the veto influenced the spending levels of subsequent appropriations Reagan's own 1981 Not only did Congress send What If a Veto Shuts Down the Government?

If the President and Congress are at a budget impasse at the start of the next fiscal year, nonessential federal agencies would have no money to continue operating not necessarily a disaster procedures for orderly shut-downs personnel," such as heads of a gencies, military personnel, prison guards, and other essential employees to continue working during the budget standoff functions, moreover, remain unaffected.

By vetoing congressional spending bills, of course, the President invites political heat. But s o does Congress. By voicing a clear and unequivocal message that he will veto a bill authorizing spending over a certain level, Reagan would shift the responsibility for shutting If Reagan were to veto an appropriations measure early in this This is a ser i ous matter, but The one-day closure caused by Reagan's 1981 veto helped refine These procedures require "excepted National security and other essential government down the government to Congress budget cycle, it would send an unambiguous signal to Congres s that he is firmly resolved to control the deficit significantly his subsequent bargaining power. This would increase FOUR CAVEATS IN USING THE VETO As the most powerful tool in the President's arsenal, the veto must be used with care veto are: Among the key considerations in deciding to 1) Overrides are moliticallv damaaina.

Nothing dissipates a President's political clout faster than a vote by two-thirds of each house of Congress to override the veto override signifies vulnerability and weakness. As such , the Administration should place top priority into building coalitions to assure that its veto will be sustained unequivocally that he will veto a bill, such as a tax increase, he must do so even if an override is probable An But if Reagan has promised T he cost of making empty 10 threats. and having the bluff called is greater than the cost of the override an electoral backlash for thwarting a presidential pledge.

And there is a potential cost to those voting to override 2) The veto should be employed only for clear cause.

The President cannot afford to be perceived as an obstinate obstructionist. In 1982, for example, Reagan vetoed a 14.2 billion appropriations bill, which he claimed would "bust the budget In fact, the bill's spending levels were lower t han his original reqitest unconvincing reasons for his decision. If a bill is to be vetoed, therefore, the reason for it should be unambiguous, sound, and consistent with the President's stated priorities The veto was overridden, larSeJy because of Reagan ' s 3) The President's intention to veto a bill should be stated as early as possible A second lesson of Reagan's overridden veto of the 1982 appropriations bill is that waiting too long before alerting Congressmen that they risk a veto increases the chance s of an override. Reagan failed to warn Congress until after the 1982 bill was passed. Since many Republican Senators had voted for it, number refused to reverse their position and hence voted to override.

Political scientist Myron Levine points out that a President needs to reach a balance between committing as early as possible on a bill on one-hand, and maintaining his bargaining flexiblity on the other 4) A veto must be accompanied by constructive alternatives.

The veto is most powerful when it is linked with steps for taking the initiative on the issue. Successful veto strategies link the veto pen with White House initiatives, thereby keeping the President in control of the legislative agenda.

CONCLUSION Few Presidents have been in a better position t o promote their political agenda by vetoing than Ronald Reagan As a President with as strong an electoral mandate as any President can hope to win, he has 18. Myron Levine, "Tactical Constraints and Presidential Influence on Veto Overrides,"

Presidential Studies Ouarterlv 1984 p. 647 19. Ibid p. 649 20. Ibid p. 649 11 the support of the American people to wield all his constitutional powers--including the veto--to further his political agenda. While some may warn that a veto devours political capital, it is just as true that it creates political capital. The veto, moreover is a very effective device for grabbing the public's attention and focusing it on the President's struggle to pursue policies on behalf of all the people and against special interests.

President's most effective bully pulpit.

A veto message may be a The veto is a particularly useful device in curbing government spending--an issue that surely tops the President's list of priorities. The President continually has requested a line- item vet o to tackle huge multiprogram appropriation bills without having to reject or accept the entire package If Reagan is given that power by Congress, it will help restore balance in the legislative process.

Meanwhile, the President would be taking a major st ep toward putting a lid on government spending if he were to employ his existing powers more aggressively. It is time for Ronald Reagan to say lln~.ll James Gattuso Policy Analyst Stephen Moore Research Associate 12 -


James Moore

McKenna Senior Fellow in Political Economy