To ensure proper checks and balances for the executive branch of government, our Founding Fathers wisely gave the president the power to veto legislation passed by Congress. This gave the chief executive enormous power over the legislative branch, though a veto could be overridden with a vote of two-thirds of the members of both houses of Congress, but a lot easier said than done. However, President Bush has yet to take advantage of this and has not vetoed one single piece of legislation in more than five years of his presidency, even though he has had many opportunities to do so.
Now I’m sure our president, with two degrees from Ivy League schools, knows that he possesses such authority under the Constitution. But why he hasn’t utilized it is anybody’s guess. My own thought is that he is still trying to live up to a campaign pledge he made in 2000, which is to bring a new tone to Washington and stop the gridlock and nasty political fighting. Vetoes would only complicate matters. This is in addition to the fact that his party controls Congress and to veto a bill could be viewed as a split in the ranks. But this is not the action of a man of principle, only one of politics. And what have we reaped from his policy? The Patriot Act, McCain-Feingold, a prescription drug benefit for Medicare, and numerous, massive spending bills full of pork, like the recent highway bill, that have given us the largest deficits in our history!
But contrary to popular belief, Bush is not alone in his veto-free presidency. In fact it has happened numerous times in our past, with seven presidents never wielding it. President Thomas Jefferson did not veto a single bill in eight full years as president, and this followed a four year term by John Adams, who also did not veto a single bill. And for the record, President Washington only vetoed two bills in his eight years at the helm. This was a different era, however. Then, presidents believed that only those laws thought to be unconstitutional should be rejected, which made the president, in the eyes of our Founders, the watchman over the Constitution rather than the Supreme Court.
A great example occurred on March 3, 1817, when President James Madison vetoed the Bonus Bill, stating in his veto message to Congress that the “legislative powers vested in Congress are specified and enumerated in the eighth section of the first article of the Constitution, and it does not appear that the power proposed to be exercised by the bill is among the enumerated powers, or that it falls by any just interpretation within the power to make laws necessary and proper for carrying into execution those or other powers vested by the Constitution in the Government of the United States.” There are numerous examples of this throughout our early history, as presidents regarded it as their duty to guard the Constitution.
Congress also did not spend nearly the same amount of time in session during the early years of the republic as it does now, so fewer laws were passed, not to mention the fact that the federal government stayed within strict constitutional boundaries and did not venture off into areas reserved to the individual states. So presidents did not have nearly as many opportunities to veto legislation.
Beginning with Andrew Jackson, however, the era of limited presidential vetoes came to a screeching halt. President Jackson believed he should veto bills that he simply did not like, whether they were constitutional or not. He issued 12 such rejections in two terms as chief executive, compared to only 10 in the previous 40 years! Thus a new era began to take shape, giving the president much more power and authority.
Democratic heroes Grover Cleveland and Franklin D. Roosevelt hold the record for most vetoes, with 584 and 635 respectively. Amazingly, FDR, working with a Democratic Congress, had only 9 overridden in more than 12 years as president. And Cleveland issued 414 of his in his first term alone! In our modern era, usage of the veto pen has slowed a bit but has been used with great effectiveness. Nixon issued 43 vetoes, Ford had 66, Carter 31, Reagan 78, Bush, Sr. 44, and Clinton issued 37.
President Bush needs to join the crowd and begin to use his presidential power more decisively. He claims to want to slow down spending in his second term and use of the presidential veto is the surest and most effective way to do it, as it seems Congress will not. With our budget deficit soaring to new heights, something has got to give.
Embattled former House Majority Leader Tom Delay recently concluded, to the amazement of many true conservatives, that all the fat had been trimmed from the federal budget and to cut further would slice muscle and bone. Whose budget did he examine? Certainly not Washington’s! And with the prospect of spending hundreds of billions of additional dollars to clean up after Hurricane Katrina, our economic future looks bleak. President Bush should finally wield the veto pen and begin to make serious cuts in the federal budget or risk a serious split in GOP ranks, a prospect that could have disastrous consequences in 2006 and 2008.