Simple question: how credible is Obama’s recent veto threat, and what effect does it have in the context of veto bargaining?
1) In general, I don’t think a veto threat is very credible for the President this Congress. The Senate is controlled by the Democrats, and thus any legislation coming out of Congress automatically has something of a Democratic stamp-of-approval on it. There’s just no way around this. Everyone is now attuned to the idea that 41 Senators can stop legislation. So if 60 Senators sign-on, the perception is that you have a bipartisan deal, and it’s hard to imagine the President actually vetoing any legislation that is described that way. And if he can’t veto it, then the veto threats are empty, and veto bargaining should be theoretically worthless. It’s just cheap talk.
For this exact reason, it seemed highly unlikely to me that Obama would carry out his various veto threats earlier this year against either a long-term CR or a debt-ceiling deal, since either would-be law coming out of Congress was more or less required to have the support of at least a dozen Senate Democrats. Perhaps Obama could have aimed his veto threat at just such conservative Democrats, in hopes that they won’t cave in to GOP pressure to pass a rather conservative package. But it doesn’t really seem likely. The 12th most conservative Democrat is someone like Hagan or Begich or Benet. Are their ideal points really that far from Obama’s?
As such, I think this illustrates one reason Obama has it harder than Clinton did post-1995. Since the GOP held both the House and Senate then, Clinton had a much stronger bargaining position, and the veto threats were much more real. Any legislation coming out of Congress was inherently Republican legislation, and that made it easy for Clinton to threaten, and follow-through, with vetoes. And that meant that veto bargaining held some real promise.
As a more general historical matter, we’re in a relatively unprecedented divided government situation. As it happens, I think there have only been three instances since world war 2 in which one party has controlled the Senate and the other party has controlled the House: the 107th Congress after Jeffords switched parties (2001-2002); the first three Congresses of the Reagan presidency (97th-99th Congresses, 1981-1986); and the famous “do-nothing” 80th Congress (1947-1948). Bush didn’t veto anything in the 107th. Reagan vetoes a lot, 59 bills in those six years. Truman vetoes dozens upon dozens of bills in the 80th, but given the conservative coalition, it probably was closer to a typical divided-government situation than a cross-chamber split.
Further exploration of these situation might be useful. Charles Cameron’s book on veto bargaining suggests that divided government should increase the instances of inter-branch bargaining and veto threats, as the ideal points of the President and Congress drift apart from each other. But this tells us little about the current situation, in which one chamber of Congress may have an ideal point theoretically close to the President.
2) That said, the legislation arising from the Joint Select Committee provides a special situation. The expedited procedures included in the Budget Control Act regarding legislation produced by the so-called supercommittee create a majoritarian set of rules for Senate consideration. The motion to proceed to the legislation is not debatable; the measure is privileged for disposition; time limitations are placed on consideration; and a majoritarian up/down vote occurs after the time limits expire. In this situation, a conservative package might very well draw the necessary four Democratic/Indy votes. It’s not hard to imagine a package unliked by Obama that Nelson, McCaskill, Lieberman, and Webb all support. In this case, Obama’s ideal point my well be far enough away from the Senate median voter’s ideal point that a veto threat might be credible, and thus veto bargaining effective. In effect, Obama would be saying to the GOP and the four most conservative Democrats: don’t bother. This may or may not dissuade them — position taking matters — but it would certainly force them back to the drawing board post-veto, which might force them back to the drawing board prior to any position taking opportunities.
I think this is an under-appreciated effect of the Budget Control Act — it makes the President more relevant politically. And this is precisely because it opens up the possibility of a very conservative bill coming out of Congress, without any real possibility of a very liberal bill coming out of Congress. That doesn’t mean it helps the President achieve his ideal point; quite to the contrary, it moves the median bill coming out of Congress to the right. But that very fact means that the President might plausibly veto the result, and thus he has room to play politics with the bill in a way that he otherwise would not. In effect, under the rules of the Budget Control Act, the politics of the deficit look a lot more like Clinton vs. the GOP than they otherwise would. And that, I think, helps the President politically if not on policy.
3) Another possibility is that Congress could unify in an “irresponsible position”; that might provoke a veto. Imagine a scenario in which Congress decides that both the supercommittee cuts and the sequestrations are completely unpalatable, or a situation in which the supercommittee comes up with basically nothing. In either case, it might be tempting for Congress to write legislation that more or less overrides the Budget Control Act, blocking the sequestration of the defense funds and entitlement cuts and perhaps comes up with minimal window-dressing cuts as a show piece. Assuming such action could get through the House, this would be an ideal candidate for a veto, since it would plausibly allow the president to take the “responsible” position against a recalcitrant Congress, forcing them to either accept the sequestration cuts or actually come up with a more substantial alternative-plan.
What do people out there think? Do Obama’s veto threats mean anything, or are they just cheap talk? Is the supercommittee legislation fundamentally different?