Bush, GOP majority in synch and in control
By Peter S. Canellos, Globe Columnist | October 12, 2004
WASHINGTON -- About halfway through Friday night's debate, a man named Matthew O'Brien declared: ''Mr. President, you have enjoyed a Republican majority in the House and Senate for most of your presidency. In that time, you've not vetoed a single spending bill."
It was probably the first time many Americans heard one of the more extraordinary facts of President Bush's tenure -- that he has never wielded a veto pen.
Bush sidestepped the veto question, talking more broadly about his economic views. Much later, Senator John F. Kerry mentioned Bush's no-veto record as proof of his high spending.
But seasoned Washington observers believe the significance of Bush's lack of vetoes goes beyond spending: It's what this odd statistic says about how the government is run under full Republican control.
More than at any time in recent history, the executive branch and Congress are working in synchrony, in the manner of a European parliament. Bush isn't vetoing bills because he's working so closely with leaders of Congress that little has gone through without his preapproval. This is a vastly different approach from that at any time in the last half-century, when the norm was divided control, and whenever one party ruled the White House and Congress, it was the fractious Democrats.
When Democrats controlled both houses of Congress they spanned vast ideological distances, from Northeastern liberals to Southern conservatives. This meant that both presidents and congressional leaders had to reach out to Republicans to form majorities. Allegiances were fluid. Doors were always open.
During Lyndon B. Johnson's presidency, his fellow Democrats had sizable majorities in both chambers. They passed a raft of Great Society programs but split sharply over civil rights and social issues. Johnson worked phones late into the night cajoling Republicans to offset his own party's defections.
In the late 1970s, Jimmy Carter ran up against a Congress controlled by his own party but willing to oppose him on issue after issue: House speaker Thomas P. ''Tip" O'Neill Jr. expressed his disdain for Carter's administration early and often.
Then, in the '90s, Bill Clinton proved to be far more effective at horse-trading with Republican leaders than in dealing with his own party, which controlled Congress for the first two years of his presidency. His own Democrats -- divided between the demands of liberals for wider coverage and the cautions of health-policy experts like US Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan of New York -- sunk Clinton's plan before Republicans could fire their first torpedo.
Republicans took control of both chambers in January 1995. Though Clinton got the better of GOP House Speaker Newt Gingrich in their early political battles, and House Republicans returned the favor by scarring Clinton with impeachment, the hybrid government scored well in most polls. Citizens felt well served, even if their leaders were at war with each other.
The election of George W. Bush changed everything. After an initial bump caused by the defection of Vermont's James Jeffords, which briefly shifted control of the Senate to the Democrats, Bush and congressional leaders have worked so closely that checks and balances are arguably out of whack.
In a recent series, the Globe's Susan Milligan and Christopher Rowland reported that major bills are increasingly being shaped in House-Senate conference committees, where GOP leaders often exclude Democrats and rewrite hundreds of pages of legislation. Then they quickly ram the resulting bill through the House under strict party-line votes; only in the closely divided Senate, which requires 60 out of 100 votes to defeat a filibuster, have GOP leaders been thwarted on a few measures.
This type of dealing -- using committees set up to reconcile differences between House and Senate versions of bills to write whole new bills favoring the wishes of the GOP leadership -- is possible because congressional chieftans have no fear of a presidential veto.
The nonpartisan Citizens Against Government Waste reports that the number of projects added to spending bills in conference committees jumped to 3,407 this year from just 47 in 1994, the last year of Democratic control. But the more revealing statistic may be the jump between the last year of the Clinton presidency and Bush's first year, when the number doubled from 1,086 to 2,195.
Congressional leaders have returned the favor, suspending reservations about Bush's policies. Many in the GOP shared Kerry's qualms about simply writing a check for $87 billion to cover military costs and rebuilding in Iraq and Afghanistan. But Bush refused to entertain proposals from Republicans to restructure part of the deal as a loan. GOP leaders allowed the vote to go ahead as the White House wanted, putting Kerry in a position of either swallowing his objections or voting against a bill to fund the troops.
Kerry voted no, and has spent weeks trying to explain himself. Oddly, he has barely mentioned how the vote came to pass -- or the unusually tight GOP alliance that put it forward.
Peter S. Canellos is the Globe's Washington bureau chief. National Perspective is his