Bruce Bartlett

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 of why presidents were given veto power by the Constitution.

I am reminded of some advice once given by former Sen. Bob Dole, Republican of Kansas. "You can never go wrong," he said, "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 end up getting it anyway. But the people who were opposed to the bill will remember that you stood with them.

I also remembered 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 that many would otherwise be compelled to vote against, knowing that 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 that 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 which 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 which were 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 they were assured of a veto.

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's 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 that are unjustified on public policy grounds. This is why Bush has repeatedly asked for line item veto authority.


Bruce Bartlett

Bruce Bartlett is a former senior fellow with the National Center for Policy Analysis of Dallas, Texas. Bartlett is a prolific author, having published over 900 articles in national publications, and prominent magazines and published four books, including Reaganomics: Supply-Side Economics in Action.

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