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He’s Just a Prez Who Can’t Say No

by Peter B. Levy on Oct 18, 2004

Peter B. Levy

Not since James Garfield resided in the White House in 1881 has a President failed to exercise his veto power. Since Garfield’s residency was shortened to mere months by an assassin’s bullet, we have to go back to 1825, when John Quincy Adams served out his full term without vetoing a single bill.

Ironically, Bush casts himself as a man of principles who, unlike his opponent, is ready, willing and able to stand up to political pressure. His record of having signed every single measure that has crossed his desk suggests otherwise. Not even Congress’s greatest admirers think every act it passes is a winner. Bush’s refusal to send bills back to Congress helps account for the rapid growth in non-discretionary spending and the metamorphosis of the record federal budget surplus in 2000 into the largest deficit ever today.

Certainly over the past four years the President has had plenty of opportunities to send pork-laden measures back to Congress. Just this past week, Congress sent to President Bush the “American Jobs Creation Act.” Initially conceived as a way to counter the rescission of $5 billion of U.S. subsidies to exporters that the World Trade Organization had ruled illegal, the bill grew into a $140 billion giveaway to special interests. Not surprisingly, pundits immediately coined this measure the Corporate Pork Bill. Rather than vetoing it and demanding that Congress cut out the many add-ons, Bush has pledged to sign the act.

The Republican domination of Congress does not alone explain Bush’s record of agreeing to every bill that has crossed his desk. During the 1960s, the Democrats controlled both houses of Congress, yet Lyndon Johnson and John F. Kennedy still found a need to veto 30 and 21 bills, respectively. During the 1930s, Franklin Roosevelt vetoed hundreds of bills passed by members of his own party. Harry Truman faced both Republican and Democratic Congresses in the late 1940s and early 1950s. Yet he repeatedly affirmed his reputation as a man who took personal responsibility — “the buck stops here” — by vetoing bills he considered either a threat to America’s basic liberties or fiscally irresponsible. Even Calvin Coolidge, one of George W. Bush’s role models in terms of fiscal prudence, found 50 bills passed by a like-minded Republican Congress in the 1920s offensive enough to reject.

While it would be wrong to suggest that president should exercise the veto wantonly, it is not coincidental that only one president who refused to exorcise a single bill was re-elected. The American public understands that special interests and lobbyists exert tremendous pressure on Congress to fund pet projects and create tax loopholes. They look to their presidents to exercise their constitutionally granted veto power to provide a check and balance against these forces. Certainly, a president who has not said no once in his entire presidency is not a strong leader.


Peter B. Levy is a professor history at York College in York, Penn., and a writer for the History News Service.