Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Who Was The ‘Greatest’ President in Terms of Being a Budget Hawk?

President Obama fumbled on his first budget possession when he failed to veto the earmark-laden ’continuing appropriations’ bill (stuff left over from the last session of Congress in 2008 because they did not want to vote on it right before an election). [1]

‘You never get a second chance to make a first impression’, the old saying goes, and the President unfortunately proved that it was ‘business as usual’ on Capitol Hill.

When it comes down to it, really, what can a U.S. President do when it comes to making decisions on spending and taxation policy? For a nation that rebelled against the unjust and capricious policies of a King in England over 233 years ago, the faith and reliance we put nowadays on a single person in the White House seems to be completely misplaced.

“The President proposes, the Congress disposes”, goes the old line in Washington. The Founders thought so little of giving any strong fiscal powers to the Executive that they reserved all powers to raise funds and make decisions on spending to the legislative branch or Congress. The Founders wanted the “Executive” to enact or execute all of their spending priorities. All spending and tax bills originate in House, with all tax legislation usually starting in the House Ways and Means Committee.

The President can propose a budget, which he is required to do by the Budget Act of 1974. However, this is more of a matter of convenience because up until that time, there really never had been any kind of an overall budget for the federal government. Congress just adopted myriad appropriations bills according to the whims of the leadership and the appropriations committee chairman which made him the most powerful member of the House and Senate. Congress is still under no obligation to pass any or all of any President’s budget…ever. Federal budgets are almost 99.9% exclusive territories of the U.S. Congress.

The historic budget debates you hear about each year in Congress actually focuses on maybe 10% or less of the federal budget, now totaling an astronomical $3.6 trillion and counting. The rest, 90% or so of the budget, goes through the process untouched year after year after year.

So where does the President have the most power in each year’s fiscal process? He has one, and only one, viable tool at his disposal: the presidential veto. And if he fails to use it with regularity, Congress will continue to roll through excessive spending in a variety of ways, all designed to make it even more confusing to the public to understand: budget reconciliation bills; continuing resolutions; authorization bills versus appropriations bills…the list seems endless.

Anyway, which President was the “greatest” in terms of being a friend of the taxpayer and holding down wasteful spending? It most definitely was not George W. Bush who used the veto an amazingly low 12 times in eight years, only once on any spending or appropriations matters.

Was it Ronald Reagan? Harry S (remember, the “S” didn’t stand for anything) Truman? Teddy Roosevelt? They were all tough-minded, bully-pulpit presidents.

For my money, the greatest modern president in terms of fiscal discipline was President Gerald R. Ford who ascended to the presidency the moment Richard Nixon resigned in August, 1974. President Ford had been the Republican Minority Leader in the House before being named Vice President to take over after Spiro Agnew resigned the office following revelations of a scandal.

That is an important fact to remember about President Ford, as you will soon see.

He used the veto pen 66 times over a 2.5 year period, mostly to curb wasteful spending bills that kept coming up during his term.

“Why?” he was asked one day. He replied something to the effect of: “You have to remember, I was in the US House for a long time and I know just how much junk is in those spending bills every year.”

For that, we should all raise a glass and toast President Ford on his birthday, July 14 (he was born Leslie Lynch King, Jr. believe it or not).

I would go one step further and say that a great president on fiscal issues would be the one who told Congress that he was going to use the veto pen until they could get to the magical number of 67 Senators and 290 House Members. Those are the numbers needed to override his veto on any bill. Not the 218 it takes on most bills in the House or the 60 needed in the Senate to invoke cloture or end debate….but an override majority needed on each spending bill that has been vetoed.

And then just sit at the Lincoln desk in the Oval Office and punch the veto button every time without even looking at the contents of the bill before him.

[1] http://www.telemachusleaps.com/2009/03/earmarks-schmearmarks.html

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