Vetoes and strategies -- White House and 110th Congress

Posted: Jan 08, 2007 9:01 PM
Vetoes and strategies -- White House and 110th Congress

The ancient saying that "time flies" was never truer as the 110th Congress convened this past week. It was 40 years ago exactly as this eager 24-year old edged into Washington. I had been delayed a few days by then the largest snow storm in history. I stayed overnight in a hotel which now houses the Heritage Foundation. There was no one to tell me that I would one day be its first President. My only concern was where to park my car. I had not yet been to my office, in the suite of Senator Gordon L. Allott (R-CO) and his staff. The opening of the 90th Congress was at hand. Republicans had done better than expected during the 1966 elections. The air, with Lyndon B. Johnson in the White House, was that Republicans would win the 1968 elections. LBJ had become unpopular due to the war. He now had lost politically. The GOP had picked up 46 House seats and five Senate seats.

Republicans, especially in the House, with Representative Joe Waggoner's (D-LA) conservative Democrats, were sufficiently numerous to create political defeats for the White House. I was eager to learn. I had no doubt that my mentor, Senator Allott, got tired of being peppered with questions although he never indicated such. He seemed almost as eager to touch as I had been to learn. For example, the Senator unexpectedly agreed, against the wishes of his entire senior staff except yours truly, to transfer to the newly created Transportation Appropriations Subcommittee. The only reason for his doing so was my indicating in a staff meeting to discuss the subject that this was my area of interest. So he dropped in my lap the best present I possibly could have.

He put me in a position of authority in the one area of my own expertise. Suddenly at age 24 I was mature beyond my years. Now I didn't have only him to teach me but also a bevy of senior staff transferred because of the creation of the Transportation Appropriations Subcommittee to mirror the newly created Department of Transportation. I mention all this because I just witnessed the installation of the brand new Congress. Everything is almost the mirror opposite as when I arrived here 40 years ago. The Democrats had done better than expected in the Congressional elections. This was especially true of the House. In the Senate the GOP had not done quite as well. LBJ was mired down in the Vietnamese War, as President George W. Bush in Iraq. The Democrats are morally certain they are going to win in 2008; the same was true of the Republicans in 1968. In fact, the effort of Senator Robert P. Griffin (R-MI) to defeat Supreme Court Chief Justice nominee Abe Fortas was precisely due to the belief in GOP circles that our candidate should name the new Chief Justice. Granted Fortas had enough liabilities to assure his defeat, but I can tell you in my discussions with both Senators Allott and Griffin that a GOP victory in 1968 was very much a motivating factor in the Fortas defeat. (Justice Fortas, of course, resigned, following ethics disclosures.)

True, there was talk of bipartisanship. But LBJ had shoved the Great Society down the throats of legislators and if he knew how to compromise he didn't show it. As a result all of the talk I heard in those early days was of payback time to LBJ. If we could defeat him we wanted to do so. The same attitude exists among the liberals in the House. Bush and the Republicans had often shut them out of the legislative process. Now that they have the majority they want to stick it to Bush, regardless of the issue. The talk of bipartisanship today is worth as much as it was then.

Somewhere there is an eager 24-year old staffer who is getting his start with the opening of the 110th Congress. Perhaps his Senator is able to shift over to the Homeland Security Committee, against the advice of his senior staff but because he wanted to give that eager 24-year old a chance.

Of course, the one thing which is different today is Speaker Nancy Pelosi. She has been dubbed "Queen for a Day" by some of the media. Certainly the liberal media is lapping her every move. John W. McCormack (D-MA), who succeeded Sam Rayburn (D-TX), as Speaker, was a very modest man. He indulged none of the pomp associated with his becoming Speaker that Mrs. Pelosi has promoted.

The problem is Republicans. They haven't figured out who they are. After a dozen years in the majority, they have not adjusted to minority status. They come off as whining juveniles who have been deprived of something they think should be theirs.

The Senate Minority Leader told some interested parties that he has a lot of ability to stop bad legislation in the Senate and he would not hesitate to use whatever means were necessary. That is well and good. Perhaps Republicans will start acting like Republicans. But the more I thought of what Senator Mitch McConnell (R-KY) said the more I thought that perhaps there would be a better way. It takes only 41 Senators to obstruct the Majority's agenda - the more so because Senator Tim Johnson (D-SD) is months away from casting a vote on the Senate Floor. But if Senator McConnell defeated legislation in that manner the media coverage would be negative and confusing.

If Senator McConnell could secure an absolute commitment from the President to veto bad legislation it would be preferable to fight the legislation, then let it pass with the votes of all of the Democrats and a few Republicans who always want to do the wrong thing. Then if Bush vetoed bad legislation the event would receive enormous and very clear coverage. President Ford vetoed some 60 bills in his short time in office. Only three were overridden. However, he garnered such good will from doing so that venerable conservatives such as Carl T. Curtis (R-NE) and Clifford P. Hansen (R-WY) ended up in the Ford camp instead of that of Ronald Reagan in 1976.

If McConnell blocked bad legislation he would cause Senator Harry M. Reid (D-NV) and the Democrats to charge that he was obstructionist. They then would campaign on the theme that additional liberal Senators were needed to override the obstructionist majority. But if McConnell could get Bush to veto the same legislation it would be a wholly different ballgame. The President, even with a hostile press, always can get clearer cut coverage for vetoing a bill than a minority of Senators can obtain in voting against cloture. The problem will be to get Bush to commit to veto the bad legislation. Many legislators voted for the infamous McCain-Feingold campaign legislation, which clearly restricts free speech. Bush said he thought the bill was unconstitutional but he was sure the Supreme Court would strike it down. The Court did not invalidate the law despite language in the First Amendment to the Constitution that "Congress shall make no law ...[abridging] the freedom of speech..." But if 41 Senators needed for a filibuster would petition the White House to veto the legislation our guys could fight the legislation and vote against it. It would pass by the narrowest of margins. Then a Bush veto would make a tremendous difference. I know Bush doesn't like to veto legislation. He had the excuse these past six years that he didn't want to go against a Republican Congress. Those days are over.

I hope and pray that the Senators can implement this strategy and that Bush will agree to it. If he were perceived as weak in the past this is a way for him to go out looking strong. The more things change the more they remain the same. That absolutely can be said of this Congress, despite Mrs. Pelosi. She will be a passing fad for a time. Meanwhile, Congress will begin to act like Congresses past. If Bush will open the door a new chapter in our nation's history can be written. The chapter I propose is unlikely but possible if we all sing off of the same song sheet.