Rarely do conservatives look to President Franklin D. Roosevelt for inspiration. The same can be said of Gerald R. Ford, who was forced to fend off a challenge from Ronald Reagan for the Republican Presidential nomination in 1976. Harry S. Truman earned the respect of conservatives for his success in helping to contain Communism, not for his domestic policies. Yet each of these Presidents offer Americans concerned with restraining Federal spending lessons about exercising effective leadership. President George W. Bush and his advisors can profit from the examples set by these predecessors.
A chart on the webpage of the Clerk of the House lists each President and his vetoes. The frustrating and disappointing story of the Bush Administration's failure to control domestic spending is recorded. No President since Dwight D. Eisenhower has vetoed fewer than the 21 bills President John F. Kennedy vetoed - that is, until George W. Bush. He has vetoed only one bill despite serving nearly twice as long in office as Kennedy. Signed into law by President Bush were expensive bills including No Child Left Behind and the Medicare Prescription Drug Coverage plan.
The Heritage Foundation FEDERAL REVENUE AND SPENDING: A BOOK OF CHARTS shows a relatively consistent upward trajectory for non-defense, discretionary spending since the 1960s. Not so for discretionary defense spending, which has its ebbs. Post-9/11 there is no doubt that our country must defend itself against terrorism, much less against rogue states such as North Korea and Iran. All the more reason that the President and Congress should follow the examples set by predecessors in the White House and on Capitol Hill who sought sensible curbs on discretionary, non-defense spending.
President Roosevelt's four administrations were not heralded for their fiscal stewardship. John Fund, editorial writer for THE WALL STREET JOURNAL, reminds us that, despite his deserved reputation for expanding the Federal Government, Roosevelt had the common sense to know that America could not fight World War II and maintain New Deal programs. The Civilian Conservation Corps, National Youth Administration and the Works Project Administration were terminated during the war years. Clearly, more conservative Congresses than those during the New Deal years helped to promote greater fiscal restraint on the domestic front. Fund, in his September 12, 2005 Opinion Journal column, "Hey, Big Spender," reminds us that Roosevelt wrote his budget director after Hitler had invaded Poland, directing him to rein in government spending "at the present level and below, if possible." Soon thereafter Roosevelt informed his budget director his administration would not "undertake any new activities, even if laudable ones." Fund writes that spending on non-defense programs declined by 22% during the years 1939-1942.
Roosevelt was not shy when it came to using the veto. Statistics compiled by the Congressional Research Service show our longest-serving President was the champion of vetoes, having refrained from signing legislation into law 635 times. Not all the legislation involved more spending or new programs. George C. Robinson, in a 1942 AMERICAN POLITICAL SCIENCE REVIEW article on "The Veto Record of Franklin D. Roosevelt," noted, "Some of the returned measures [to Congress, having been vetoed by Roosevelt] involved huge sums of money; others, claims of only a few dollars."
President Truman advocated a "Fair Deal" which involved more spending. Once the Korean War started, Truman exhibited Missouri-style common sense when it came to spending. "In just one year, Truman and a Democratic Congress cut nonmilitary spending by 28%," writes Fund. Left on the drawing board were ambitious plans for national health insurance and greater Federal aid to education.
President Ford's continuation of the Nixon-Kissinger detente policies forced many conservatives, including myself, to be very skeptical of handing him a full four-year term. Many conservatives have come to respect Ford, in retrospect, based upon his willingness to use the veto against the spending proclivities of a Congress controlled by the opposition party. Ford was anything but embarrassed about exercising presidential leadership. Asked at the September 23, 1976 debate with Democratic challenger Jimmy Carter about his willingness to veto spending bills during a time in which unemployment was high, Ford argued higher spending would not solve unemployment but would create added inflationary pressures which would lead to more pink slips. Ford was proud that those of his vetoes which were sustained by Congress (many were not) saved Americans over $9 billion. Less than a week after that debate, Ford vetoed the appropriations bill for the Departments of Labor and Health, Education and Welfare because Congress larded it with extra spending. Ford declared his belief that "the American people are wiser than the Congress thinks. They know that compassion on the part of the Federal Government involves more than taking additional cash from their paychecks." Not only taxpayers, but the poor and jobless and older Americans, were hurt by inflation and deficits. Ford said:
"I believe strongly in compassionate concern for those who cannot help themselves, but I have compassion for the taxpayer, too. My sense of compassion also says that we shouldn't ask the taxpayers to spend their money for a tangled mess of programs that the Congress itself has shown all too often to be wasteful and inefficient - programs which all too often fail to really help those in need."
President Bush, like President Ford, confronts a Congress intent on pushing a liberal agenda. Some of these new Members of Congress, like those elected in 1974, say they favor more restraint on spending. Recent history shows the tendency of the party soon to take control of Congress is to spend. Costly bills may soon wind up on President Bush's desk. The President can display the resolve demonstrated by Roosevelt, Truman and Ford or he can yield to the demands of the spenders in Congress.
The good news is the early signals from the White House indicate the President intends to hold the line on spending. Rob Portman, Director of the Office of Management and Budget, told WASHINGTON TIMES reporter Stephen Dinan that the Bush Administration would do its best to indicate its priorities to the new leadership in Congress and hopefully would be able to "work things out without resorting to a veto." Portman added that if, need be, the veto would be used. Portman argued that Bush is less concerned with scoring political points than in governing effectively.
It's nice to hear talk from President Bush's team about drawing a line in the sand over spending. Let's hope that the Bush Administration makes the case to rein in spending more forcefully in the days and weeks to come. Gerald R. Ford was no Franklin D. Roosevelt when it came to giving memorable speeches but Ford effectively turned to his advantage the charges that he lacked compassion by opposing more spending by stating that it is not compassion to pile up deficits by spending on programs that do not work. Ford nearly won the election despite the drag created by Watergate. People appreciated Ford's willingness to tell it like it is. Americans realized Ford backed up his words with real action -- the veto.
President Bush should talk similar sense to Congress and to the American people. If he reminds them too many Federal dollars spent today will create economic problems tomorrow they will support his effort to rein in excessive, non-defense spending. The President is leader of all the American people - regardless of party. There is a special responsibility inherent in his position. He must do what is best for the American people in the long term. That includes not amassing deficits that ultimately would destroy the vitality of the American economy, inflicting hardship on rich and poor alike, saddling younger Americans with burdensome interest payments on amassed debt. Let's hope the statement made by OMB Director Portman is the harbinger of even stronger, well-reasoned stands against excessive spending to come from the Bush Administration. The President must back up his words with vetoes when necessary.