Aided by a Republican-controlled Congress, President Bush is on track to become the first chief executive since John Quincy Adams in the 1820s to complete a full term without vetoing one bill.
He has, however, made frequent use of the veto threat, and so far that’s been enough to get what he wants.
By comparison, President Clinton issued 37 vetoes during his eight years in office. Bush’s father had 44 during his single term. Franklin Roosevelt was the champion bill slayer, killing 635 either by regular veto or “pocket” veto, which means letting a bill lapse without a presidential signature when Congress is not in session.
Rutgers University political scientist Ross Baker said there was a time when “a large number of vetoes was seen as a sign of a vigorous presidency.”
Not now. Bush’s veto-free presidency, Baker said, is “a recognition that at this particular point in history the Republicans are showing an incredible degree of solidarity.”
Rare cooperation post-9/11
The GOP has controlled the House for all three of Bush’s years in office; Democrats held a slim majority in the Senate for about half that time. That Democratic period mostly followed the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, however, which fostered a rare level of cooperation between the White House and congressional Democrats. Republicans now control the Senate.
Unlike Clinton, who couldn’t always rely on the support of his fellow Democrats, Bush can count on like-minded GOP leaders to make sure that bills reach his desk without objectionable provisions.
That hasn’t pleased everyone, including some fiscal conservatives who have faulted Bush for not blocking spending increases. A year ago, Bush demanded that a final 2003 spending package be held to $385 billion, but then signed a $397 billion bill.
“The president cannot say, as he has many times, that ‘I’m going to tell Congress to enforce some spending discipline’ and then not veto bills,” Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., said.
The writers of the Constitution ensured strong presidential influence in the legislative process by giving the president the power to reject bills passed by Congress. Except for a few presidents, they have used the power sparingly, with 2,550 vetoes over the 213 years of the republic. Vetoes can be overridden by a two-thirds vote of both the House and Senate, but that has happened only 106 times, Congressional Research Service records show.
Even the first George had 2 vetoes
George Washington issued the first of his two vetoes, on congressional apportionment, in 1792. Grover Cleveland was one of the most prolific vetoers, killing 584 bills in his two terms, mostly involving what he thought were unjustified patronage and Civil War pensions.
Andrew Johnson, who succeeded the assassinated Abraham Lincoln, saw 15 of his 29 vetoes overturned by an antagonistic Congress. Two other vice presidents who entered the White House upon the death or resignation of the president, Harry Truman and Gerald Ford, are next highest with 12 overrides.
“They had to try to establish their independence” by wielding the veto power, said Senate historian Donald Ritchie. “To some degree it was a question of their legitimacy as acting presidents.”
While eschewing the veto, Bush has used veto threats to keep Congress in line. Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, counted 16 veto threats late last year on a giant, $373 billion spending bill for the 2004 budget year that the Senate must deal with when it returns this month.
In almost every case, GOP leaders negotiating the final bill sided with Bush, even when members had shown bipartisan willingness to defy the president on such issues as opening travel to Cuba or opposing new administration rules on overtime eligibility.
Threats have worked
The threat of vetoes of major spending or defense bills has been enough to head off efforts to ease restrictions on money for international family planning groups involved in abortion, prevent a school voucher program in Washington, D.C., delay a military base closings initiative or stop plans to open up more government jobs to private competition.
A possible veto also thwarted a move in Congress to require Iraq to pay back part of the $18.6 billion set aside for reconstruction of the country in a recent $87 billion wartime spending bill.
Bush scored a political victory when he refused to yield on language in the bill creating the new Homeland Security Department that gave him greater power to hire and fire workers. Democratic opposition to the bill over the labor issue became a liability for them in the 2002 elections.
Bush has compromised at times to avoid using the veto pen, most recently over congressional efforts to block a Federal Communications Commission decision to allow media companies to own TV stations watched by 45 percent of the country’s viewers, up from the current 35 percent cap. Negotiators for the big spending bill settled for 39 percent.