Every day he is in office, President Bush draws closer to a milestone in White House relations with Congress — not for what he has done, but for what he hasn’t.
As the 2004 elections approach, Bush is well on track to become the first president not to veto a piece of legislation since James Garfield in 1881. And Garfield served only four months.
The trick might seem easy for Bush — he has a Republican Congress, after all — but history shows it’s not. Given similar circumstances, relatively recent presidents such as Jimmy Carter, Lyndon B. Johnson and John F. Kennedy each used the veto on multiple occasions to put their stamp on the legislative process. (Kennedy issued 21 vetoes, including pocket vetoes, during his abbreviated term in office.)
Indeed, Congressional observers and White House allies suggest Bush’s reluctance to throw the veto reflects a larger pattern in his presidency: a willingness to be pragmatic about what constitutes “victory.”
In Bush’s case, this has meant setting targets, getting what he can and moving on — as long as certain minimum goals are met.
“This White House understands that the first take is not necessarily the last bite of the apple,” one lobbyist with close ties to the White House said.
“If and when they’re in a situation where the glass is not at least half full, I’m sure they’d be willing to use the veto,” the source added. “But I think it’s fair to say they have never been faced with a piece of legislation, whether of their creation or not, that they have felt so egregiously violated their principles that they had to use a veto.”
Having a lower threshold for victory has allowed the Bush White House to avoid the kinds of fights that would have drawn vetoes from many previous administrations.
One recent example: last month’s tax-cut battle, where the president signed on to a plan he had once derided as being too small to be useful. It was Bush’s third bite at the proverbial apple in two-and-a-half years.
Dirk Van Dongen, the president of the National Association of Wholesaler-Distributors and a key Bush ally, credited the president’s emphasis on “principles broadly defined” for steering initiatives toward conclusions with which the White House could be satisfied. He cited, among other measures, the recent prescription drug bills and terrorism insurance.
White House spokeswoman Claire Buchan cast the president’s avoidance of the veto as the fulfillment of a campaign pledge to bring “a new tone” to Washington.
“I think the president has worked very constructively and cooperatively with the Congress,” she said.
There are tradeoffs to this kind of indulgence, of course. The most vivid of these is the re-emergence of large and growing budget deficits.
But perhaps just as significant has been Bush’s willingness to back versions of initiatives, from campaign finance reform to steel tariffs, that had been anathema to his political base.
Bush allies don’t view such developments as signs of capitulation by the president, but rather as further evidence of his practicality. They cite the cardinal rule of politics: First, get elected.
Getting elected means Bush needs to be inoculated on issues that may harm him politically down the road.
“On a practical basis there is a need to govern, and [administration officials] have to work with the votes that they have,” said Tom Schatz, who heads Citizens Against Government Waste, a Congressional watchdog group.
Schatz noted that even some Republicans on Capitol Hill have been fighting administration efforts to bring competitive sourcing to government contracting. In view of this, Schatz believes Bush could be given some credit for controlling government spending, in spite of the ballooning deficits.
“He doesn’t have the votes to get where he wants to go, because even the Republicans are spending money,” Schatz said.
Indeed some Congressional observers suggest that Bush, faced with slim GOP majorities on Capitol Hill, has had to govern almost as if Democrats were in charge.
Senate Associate Historian Donald Ritchie draws tactical parallels between Bush and former President Ronald Reagan, who faced a Democratic Congress for most of his two terms.
“Reagan was the first labor union president to become president [of the United States], and he knew how to deal,” Ritchie said. “He asked for 99 percent, they’d give him 50, and he’d call it a victory. Jimmy Carter would ask for 99 percent, get 90 percent, and call it a defeat. This White House is a lot more like Reagan’s.”
Throughout history only eight presidents never used the veto — Garfield plus John Adams, John Quincy Adams, Millard Fillmore, William Henry Harrison, Thomas Jefferson, Zachary Taylor and Martin Van Buren.
To be sure, although the Bush White House has thus far avoided the veto, it has not forsaken the veto threat.
On Capitol Hill, GOP leaders and aides say the possibility of a veto often looms over legislative proposals. But the need for Bush to actually use it tends to be offset by the active role administration officials play in the early development of legislation.
“The easiest way for the administration to get something out of [spending] bills in conference is for the administration to issue a veto threat,” said House Appropriations Committee spokesman John Scofield, who cited the out-of-favor Crusader missile system proposal as one example.
More recently, Bush’s threatened veto of any gas tax increase makes it highly unlikely that such a proposal will make it to the floor when Congress takes up the TEA-21 transportation reauthorization bill later this year, according to GOP sources.
“I’m confident the White House would not shy away from a veto fight,” said House Majority Whip Roy Blunt (R-Mo.).
However, he added, “I think the advice of Congressional leaders to the president has always been to establish targets, establish goals and then let us in Congress work in the details, so this can be a partnership.”
The arrangement, Blunt suggested, has allowed both to fulfill their respective goals. “I think that’s good, not bad.”