Monday, December 14, 2009

It's Not All on Congress

One thing that has bugged me about the ongoing critique of Matt Taibbi's "Obama is a tool of Goldman Sachs" piece is that it moves the onus of passing decent legislation entirely from the White House to Congress. Of course, the President could veto legislation he found lacking. Indeed, the one time that Obama has issued a real veto threat—the threat to veto any attempt to revive F-22 funding—Congress obliged and sent him a clean Defense bill.

Obviously, there's a noticeable difference here. The coalition to kill the F-22 was cross-partisan in a way that banking reform, health care, and climate change aren't. But at present, at least publicly, no one in the White House is considering forming a committee to study the feasibility of beginning to try to issue veto threats. You'd think that given the general weakness of the product produced by Congress, the White House might try to use some of its enumerated powers to get something more effective.

7 comments:

richard.clayton said...

This seems totally implausible to me. Even leaving aside the issue of how well a veto threat worked for Bill Clinton on health care reform, there's the general problem the Dems can only organize knife edge coalitions in either chamber (accepting for the moment the 60 vote Senate) for its legislation. In order for the veto threat to work, the 219th or so Rep. and 60th and 61st Senators have to really want the underlying legislation to pass. Perhaps they need to believe that if it doesn't pass, they're in trouble electorally, but at the very least they have to care a lot about getting something. But on health care, climate change, financial reform, labor law, and more, individual reps and senators at the yea/nea margin really don't seem to care at all about passage.

Contrast this to a defense appropriations bill, where lots of GOP reps and Sens care enormously about getting the bill done, getting it on time, keeping their districts funding streams intact, etc. And what goes for the GOP here also goes for marginal Dems. They're is just much more support in both chambers for spending money on defense, which is what makes a veto threat vis the F22 credible, and hence effective.

I think all of this could be dealt with in a majority rule Senate (since part of what marginal House members are worried about is voting for unpopular provisions that the Senate later removes, and so they're stuck with a really tough vote to defend), but I don't see the veto playing a meaningful role for progressive priorities.

Nathan Nicholson said...

But...but...the presidency is s completely vestigial office with no power to move an agenda; it's entirely beholden to Congress, and any liberal who thinks the president they voted for has a responsibility to advance progressive causes is a naive loon who needs to grow up. Can't you see that?

ikl said...

This is a bit unrealistic. If special interests buy off a majority of members of Congress enough to water down finance reform, then said majority of Congress is just going to shug its shoulders if Obama vetos such a bill. The veto might have PR value for the Obama administration, but at this point, it is probably better to try to get positive PR from actually signing flawed but better than nothing bills than from vetoing them. If things good badly enough in 2010 there may be time enough for Obama to veto bad legislation . . .

Milind said...

Yeah, I don't buy it either. I think that Joe Lieberman would be perfectly happy to let the bill die, and I don't think Ben Nelson would have trouble sleeping, either. An Obama veto threat is much like the progressive block strategy: it only works if you're more willing to let the bill die than the other side, or at least plausibly so. But that is transparently not true (for either Obama or the progressives in Congress), and so there really isn't any leverage to be gained by the threat.

Where the progressive block strategy does have traction is in trying to change Obama's actions, or the leadership's, since they do have a vested interest in getting the bill passed. But it doesn't help against a committed and die-hard opposition.

corvus said...

Ditto on everybody who says that Nick is wrong. Threat are only useful if they don't think you are bluffing. Everybody knows Obama won't veto any bill that gets more people insured and saves lives. Hence, no use in a veto threat.

yoyo said...

Nick was being snarky, guys.

Ron E. said...

A veto threat would have been laughable. Lieberman, Nelson, Snowe, & co. wouldn't have minded at all if Obama vetoed health reform. They don't really want it passed anyway. Where the White House could be criticized is in discouraging Reid from using reconciliation or not demanding he pull the plug on the absurd Senate Finance negotiations as they dragged on and on with the GOP Senators transparently acting in bad faith.