“I have my veto pen drawn and ready for any tax increase that Congress might even think of sending up. And I have only one thing to say to the tax increasers. Go ahead — make my day.” ~Ronald Reagan, 1985
Have you ever imagined what our Founders would think if they were to come back alive and witness the sorry state of our republic and the system they created? I’d love to see the look on their faces were they to see, of all things, the fact that the presidential veto barely exists and instead the judiciary vetoes legislation.
President Trump has never used his veto pen. You might not find that surprising, since his political party controls Congress. But Republicans have been passing one budget bill after another that violates every tenet of Trump’s campaign agenda. The president’s veto pen is an extremely powerful tool to leverage a president’s agenda, particularly on budget bills. Vetoes have been overridden only 111 times in our nation’s history, just eight times since President Reagan’s tenure. Yet Trump seems to think he must sign anything that passes. He refuses to even threaten a veto. That time is now … or never.
This week may very well determine the outcome of the midterm elections. The omnibus budget bill, which will fund all government programs for the remainder of the fiscal year, will be voted on this week. This is the last opportunity for Trump to score points for his agenda and build a narrative from which to win back voters. Sadly, unless conservatives are vigilant, this bill will provide even more victories for the Left while depressing conservatives. It will fund sanctuary cities, fund Planned Parenthood, bail out insurance companies, and create more and more massive debt. Amidst the clamor over palace intrigue in the White House and endless scandals, this is the single most important story of March.
The Founders feared the veto would be too powerful
The most potent weapon in the president’s arsenal of constitutional tools is the veto. As Alexander Hamilton wrote in Federalist 73, a veto “not only serves as a shield to the Executive, but it furnishes an additional security against the enaction of improper laws. It establishes a salutary check upon the legislative body, calculated to guard the community against the effects of faction, precipitancy, or of any impulse unfriendly to the public good, which may happen to influence a majority of that body.”
Our Founders understood that the legislature would predominate in a republic, which is why they gave the president this powerful tool. As Madison said, ”Ambition must be made to counteract ambition.”
If we had spoken to the Founders during the Constitutional Convention, they would have candidly admitted that their master plan could run off the tracks in many different ways. One thing they likely never considered, though, was that the presidential veto pen would turn out to be a weak tool.
Before proposing the balance of a veto override, the Founders were concerned that the absolute negative of a presidential veto would shift the balance of power way too far to the executive. During the debate of June 4, 1787, when James Wilson and Alexander Hamilton proposed a veto power, Benjamin Franklin contended that past experience showed that governors using such power led to executive extortion. “No good law whatever could be passed without a private bargain with him,” complained Franklin. The great Roger Sherman feared “enabling any one man to stop the will of the whole” because “no one man could be found so far above all the rest in wisdom.”
The Convention debated back and forth the need for a veto override. They originally passed a motion to set the threshold for an override at three-fourths of both houses of Congress, but after Roger Sherman, Charles Pinckney, Hugh Williamson, and Elbridge Gerry voiced concerns that this would place power in the hands of a president and a small number allies (enough to defeat a three-fourths vote), a sharply divided convention hall settled on a two-thirds threshold to override the veto. Additionally, they rejected the original proposal of a “council of revision” suggested by Madison, which would have placed the veto in the hands of a joint council between the president and some Supreme Court justices. Instead, the president alone would have such power. How tragic and ironic that now we have an illegal (lower court!) judicial veto, yet the executive veto is almost never used.
It is clear the Founders felt the presidential veto was a very potent tool, and many feared its abuse. Even its chief proponent, James Wilson, who wasn’t concerned about its abuse, agreed that it would serve as a powerful “silent operation.” He did predict it would “seldom” be used, not because of the weakness of the veto but because Congress “would know that such a power existed, and would refrain from such laws, as it would be sure to defeat.”
Trump’s pen and bully pulpit are all he has headed into the midterms
Isn’t it time for the president to make it clear where he stands and issue clear veto threats on the omnibus if it doesn’t fund a minimum threshold of his priorities and if it continues funding sanctuary cities and Planned Parenthood? He should make it clear that bad bills will be headed for defeat, as Wilson envisioned.
The word “veto” in Latin means “I forbid.” The president should use his bully pulpit to say that on behalf of his electorate, he forbids funding for a private organization under criminal investigation for harvesting baby organs. That he forbids funding for the issuance of visas that bring in dangerous people to this country. That he forbids funding for Obama’s executive amnesty and executive regulations that the courts are illegally perpetuating. That he forbids federal grant funding for sanctuary cities that endanger the entire federal union, are preventing us from redressing the drug smuggling crisis, and defy federal immigration law. And that he forbids the mortgaging of our future with crushing debt and skyrocketing interest payments to China.
“Well, what about a government shutdown?” you might ask. If Trump remains resolute and uses his bully pulpit, he can intimidate GOP leaders into passing his bill out of the House. Then, in the Senate, GOP leaders can force Democrats into a talking filibuster. They would be the ones who would have to stand before the American people and block a bill funding the government over funding for sanctuary cities in endless speeches that must continue until all senators have spoken twice.
Here’s the grim reality the president is facing: Congress will not pass budget reconciliation this year and will not directly reform the filibuster. Not a single one of his priorities, assuming they are indeed his priorities, will pass this year. Nor will Republicans have 60 votes next year, either, even if they wind up winning the election. His veto is his last point of leverage.
Unless Trump makes the veto pen great again, the status quo on policy will reign supreme while we spend ourselves into oblivion. Unless he uses his veto pen now with a GOP Congress to leverage his priorities and build a narrative for November, he will be confronted with a Democrat Congress next year.
Daniel Horowitz is a senior editor of Conservative Review. Follow him on Twitter @RMConservative.