Politics

The Veto Gambit

Anecdotal evidence seems to suggest that 2006 may be something more than a routine veto year.
by | July 2007

This summer's primary in South Carolina wasn't exactly a riveting affair. Less than 20 percent of the registered electorate even bothered to show up. But the hours after the polls closed on the night of June 13 produced a couple of surprises.

One was that the incumbent Republican governor, Mark Sanford, had been held to less than 65 percent of the primary vote against Oscar Lovelace, an obscure family doctor who had never run for office before. That was a modest surprise. It was no secret that Sanford had a sizable corps of detractors within his own party, but the consensus was that he could still win reelection in November.

The really stunning surprise was what Sanford did at 11 o'clock on election night. He took out a pen and vetoed the entire state budget-- all $6.6 billion of it.

Now, there are a few states in which gubernatorial budget vetoes are a fairly common political event--the governor and the legislature go back to negotiating and eventually a compromise emerges. But South Carolina isn't one of those places. Governors there have a line-item veto, so they can strike out any individual provisions they dislike, and then ask legislators to sustain those choices. That's what every chief executive in South Carolina has done for the past century, and it was what virtually everyone in the state had been expecting Sanford to do. Instead, just as the final primary votes were being counted, he tossed the entire budget in his wastebasket.

It was a shocking move for more than one reason. First, with the legislature out of regular session, there was virtually no way to go back and produce a new version in time for the start of the fiscal year on July 1. So the veto raised the prospect of a full-fledged government shutdown on that date. But even if the legislature did want to try to meet the governor's objections, it had no way of knowing what they were. In vetoing the budget, Sanford didn't offer any details about what he wanted changed. He just said that the increase in state spending was too high.

In this situation, there was never much doubt about what legislators would do. They raced back to the Capitol the next day, overrode the veto and went home. The vote to override was 99-13 in the House and 34-7 in the Senate.

Given those overwhelming numbers, in chambers controlled by Sanford's own party, one might conclude that the events of June constituted a stinging defeat for the governor's policies. But that's not really what they were. Sanford knew perfectly well what the legislature would do in response to his move. He wasn't making a policy decision. He was laying the groundwork for a fall campaign in which he could denounce the legislators as wastrels and portray himself as a lonely voice of reason. The fact that he took action virtually the moment he heard about his weak primary showing left little doubt as to what was going on.

This is state veto politics, circa 2006. Vetoes are increasingly familiar elements in a campaign season that starts at the beginning of the legislative year and never seems to end.

We may or may not be seeing an epidemic of vetoes around the country this year--precise historical comparisons are impossible to come by-- but anecdotal evidence, at least, suggests 2006 may be something more than a routine veto year. Arizona Governor Janet Napolitano vetoed 41 bills in a six-month legislative session this year, giving her 127 in one four-year term, more than any governor in Arizona history, even some who have served twice as long. Wisconsin Governor Jim Doyle has issued 47 vetoes this year, and 101 since he took office in 2003, bringing him close to the record set by his predecessor, Tommy G. Thompson, who took 14 years to compile it.

Raw figures can be misleading. The number of vetoes cast in any state at any time depends in large part on the balance of partisan control. When the governor and the legislative majority represent the same party, they usually manage to work things out. In a situation of split control, the number of vetoes nearly always shoots up.

The year before Napolitano took office in Arizona, when Republicans held the governorship and also a majority in one chamber, there were only nine gubernatorial vetoes. Similarly in Wisconsin, in the year immediately before Doyle's election, there were only two. Likewise, Colorado's Bill Owens vetoed 21 bills in his first two years as governor, when his fellow Republicans controlled both the House and Senate. In the past two years, sparring with Democratic majorities, he has vetoed 91.

But one indisputable fact about vetoes in any state is that they are almost never overridden. That's true no matter what the balance of partisan power happens to be at a given moment. The Iowa legislature did override Governor Tom Vilsack's veto of an eminent domain bill this year, but that was the first successful override there in 40 years. It's also been four decades since the legislature overturned any governor's veto in Wisconsin. For all the talk of vetoes and overrides that accompanies any legislative session, the reality is that in most states, an overridden veto comes along roughly as often as a total solar eclipse.

And that makes one element of this year's veto wars especially interesting. Legislatures are passing more and more bills in the certain knowledge that they will be vetoed and that the chances of an override are nil. In many cases, they are passing identical pieces of doomed legislation more than once.

One reason Doyle vetoed so many bills this year was that the Republican legislature kept sending him the same ones over and over again. They sent him a bill to require photo identification for voters on three separate occasions. He vetoed it each time. They sent him several other bills twice.

There was no reason for the sponsors of these bills to believe they could override a gubernatorial veto--let alone that they could prevail on the second or third try. There are comfortable GOP majorities in both chambers of the Wisconsin legislature, but nowhere near the two- thirds that it would take for veto override. The only conceivable rationale for the "send it again" strategy was a desire to lay down campaign issues. Doyle made jokes about it. "In most of our jobs," he said, "if we did something and we knew it wasn't going to succeed, we would be in trouble if we kept doing it."

But the Republicans were convinced that "send it again" politics would ultimately cause trouble for the Democratic governor, not for them. "It was important," the Senate president insisted, "for the citizens to know where we stand on some of these very important issues."

A similar scenario played out in Arizona. The Republican legislature sent Napolitano essentially the same immigration bill three times. She rejected it three times, denouncing a provision that would declare undocumented workers to be guilty of trespassing and calling the penalties against employers who hired the workers much too weak. "They sent me that bill," she said, "precisely for campaign purposes."

It would be pretty hard to deny that. Republicans made no serious effort to override any of the governor's immigration vetoes. Instead, the state GOP established a Web site, vetojanet.org, which portrays Napolitano as "Governor No," with a rubber stamp in her hand, and asserts that she "has taken the meaning of the word 'obstructionist' to new heights." Meanwhile, the four Republicans competing for the nomination to challenge Napolitano in the fall made it clear that her vetoes would be a dominant campaign issue. One of them, Phoenix businessman Don Goldwater, declared that the governor's immigration veto "aids and abets the illegal invasion of our state."

It would be naive to think that veto games are a brand-new feature of the American political process. Legislatures have been passing bills to score campaign points ever since the country was founded, and governors have been rejecting them for exactly the same reason.

But things seem to be a little out of hand. When a governor vetoes a $6 billion state budget, declining to provide specifics and knowing full well that he will be overridden; or when a legislature passes the same bill three times, just to make the governor veto it three times-- then gamesmanship has escalated to a new and annoying level. The distinction between campaigning and legislating has eroded to the point where it's hard to notice the difference.

More than a quarter-century ago, journalist Sidney Blumenthal wrote "The Permanent Campaign," a book that essentially argued that the posturing of presidential politics was no longer confined to election years but had begun to infiltrate the process of government through the entire four years of the cycle. Since then, the validity of Blumenthal's point has become painfully obvious in just about every corner of national electoral life. Slowly but surely, it has become applicable to the rest of the political system as well. That's how veto games got to be a political art form this year in state capitals such as Columbia, Madison and Phoenix.When a legislature passes the same bill three times--just to make the governor veto it three times-- then political gamesmanship has escalated to a new and annoying level.

Alan Ehrenhalt
Alan Ehrenhalt  |  Contributing Editor
aehrenhalt@governing.com  | 

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