For the first time in over four years, President Obama vetoed a bill that came to him after being approved by Congress.
The President vetoed the bill to authorize construction of the Keystone XL pipeline. While the veto was not a surprise - the President often promised to do it during the debate on the bill - it represents a critical shift in the operating procedure between the President and Congress.
Before the Keystone Pipeline, President Obama had vetoed only two other bills during his time in office. In 2009, he vetoed a bill on continuing appropriations, and then in 2010 he vetoed a bill regarding mortgage processor foreclosure documentation. Neither bill was very controversial and Congress was not able to override the vetoes. However, he also had a Congress controlled by his own party in 2009 and 2010.
After the 2010 midterm elections, Republicans took control of the House, with Democrats in charge of the Senate. The divided Congress made passage of controversial bills much more difficult. However, now that Republicans have retaken control of both the House and the Senate, they have promised to send many more bills to the President.
The President has already signaled that he will use his veto power much more actively with the new Congress.
"I haven't used the veto pen very often since I've been in office," Obama said in a recent NPR interview. "Now, I suspect, there are going to be some times where I've got to pull that pen out."
He added: "I'm going to defend gains that we've made in health care. I'm going to defend gains that we've made on environment and clean air and clean water."
With a higher willingness to veto bills, how should the President treat Republican bills when they come to his desk? In his short veto letter on the Keystone XL pipeline, Mr. Obama defended his action as a way to prevent Congress from overstepping its bounds by circumventing the process of establishing a cross-border pipeline, saying it was not in the best interest of our country to allow Legislative action to interfere with Executive authority. What is notable in the letter is the lack of language pointing to a possible resolution of the issue. The President could have indicated the kind of policy he would support in a bill. For instance, something that ensures greater environmental protection or establishes limits in other areas to mitigate any negative impacts.
As President Obama considers legislation coming to him from Congress over the next two years, he should borrow from the tactic used very successfully by President Bill Clinton nearly twenty years ago. When President Clinton vetoed the welfare reform bill of 1995, he gave a detailed argument about why he disagreed with the bill and what Congress could do to improve future bills.
Clinton said: “In disapproving [the bill], I am nevertheless determined to keep working with the Congress to enact real, bipartisan welfare reform. The current welfare system is broken and must be replaced… But [the bill] does too little to move people from welfare to work.” He went on to say: “I urge the Congress to work with me in good faith to produce a bipartisan welfare reform agreement that is tough on work and responsibility, but not tough on children and on parents who are responsible and who want to work.”
In his veto letter, President Clinton spelled out the components he wanted to see in a welfare reform bill, including time limits, work requirements, tough child support enforcement, and requiring minor mothers to live at home. At the same time, he rejected components of the bill that he saw as deep budget cuts and damaging structural changes that would weaken the program and hurt those in need. In defining these components, the President’s veto letter gave clear indications about where the two sides could find consensus and move forward.
The Clinton welfare bill veto gives a good roadmap for President Obama to use. The letter acknowledges the work of those who put the bill together, but points out the deficiencies he sees in the legislation. It then spells out the components necessary for compromise and encourages that compromise to take place.
President Clinton ended up vetoing two separate welfare reform bills that came to him from the Congress before they developed consensus legislation he would sign. However, by using the veto as a way to bring people together rather than drive them apart, the result was transformational reform that has become a model for future legislative efforts.
President Obama has threatened to use his veto authority aggressively over the next two years. As he does this he has two options; he can simply reject proposals and shut down negotiations or he can use his veto pen as a means to shape legislation and push for a better result. If used correctly, this could help differentiate him as a true leader and consensus builder rather than as an obstructionist.
As Bill Clinton said at the end of his veto letter: “We owe it to the people who sent us here not to let this opportunity slip away by doing the wrong thing or failing to act at all.”