In the escalating veto war between Gerald Ford and the Congress, it is time to ask why the White House is so far ahead in its strategic use of that presidential authority compared to the naive and unimaginative measures pursued by the Congress to override it.
Through the use of intricate power plays, White House lobbyists carry the veto potential with them every day to Capitol Hill. Overtly or covertly they and their presidential chief signal to the legislators that if they try such and such on education, health, energy, environment, tax, consumer or other issues, the veto will come thundering down upon them.
As a brooding cloud over Congress, the shaping, twisting and stopping power of the mere prospect of a veto (which requires a weighty two-thirds of both houses to defeat) has become awesome.
In the energy area, for example, because of an early White House veto signal, committees have not seriously considered basic changes, such as breaking up monopolistic oil practices or establishing a TVA-type federal oil and gas authority on federal lands.
What’s more, there is virtually no stirring in Congress to re-examine the constitutional requirement of a two-thirds override by both houses. That arithmetic was conceived almost two centuries ago when the founders were worried about an excessively weak presidential office in contrast to what they believed was a powerfully endowed Congress.
Since an elected Congress has only managed to override six out of 37 vetoes by the unelected President Ford, it is understandable why some legislators are frustrated.
After a second and much compromised effort in two successive congressional terms to pass a strip mine bill, a second Ford veto failed to be overridden in the House of Representatives by a shift of only three votes.
Part of the inability of Congress to overcome minority government can be attributed to the absence of decisive, organizing leadership.
Also, the presence of key “momentum breakers” in both houses, who announce failure before a vote and thereby insure losing, doesn’t help.
These weaknesses only highlight the need for a more astute strategy for veto override. Instead of rushing to an override vote like lemmings to the sea, Congress could build up popular support, wait for the proper time, and use its bargaining power with the White House on other matters in order to prevail.
Instead of writing legislation with a specific cutoff date, like the oil price control law, Congress could, by deleting such a termination date, place the burden of revocation on the White House.
Consequently, in order to repeal price controls, the White House would have to marshal 51 per cent of both houses of Congress for repeal, not one-third plus one in just one of the houses to sustain a veto.
Then there is the suggestion that brings wide-eyed expressions of “I dunno” from veteran legislators.
That is, why doesn’t Congress try to override a second time if the first vote fails during a congressional term?
Nothing in the Constitution prohibits a second veto override attempt. There is, in the opinion of Harvard law professor Lawrence Tribe, no court case deciding this issue.
So the immediate question is what will the parliamentarians of the House and Senate rule and how will Congress vote on their rulings?
The Constitution does not set any time limit upon Congress to override a presidential veto in its two-year term. In the recent case of Kennedy vs. Sampson, the Circuit Court of Appeals here stated that the Constitution does not require a prompt reconsideration of a vetoed bill.
Obviously, there are times when the veto can have a positive effect on policy and the balance of powers between the two branches. But like a tug-of-war, the quality of the rope is tested by the stamina of BOTH contestants.