The presidential or gubernatorial veto may be the single biggest political club our nation’s executives can swing. The House and the Senate at the federal and state level can consider, debate and pass legislation, but it still must come to the executive for the final vote. The way this considerable power has been wielded in Montana and Idaho lately is a real study in contrasting political styles.
Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer, he of the bolo tie, has been swinging the decisive veto club with abandon over the last few days. As of a couple of days ago Schweitzer, a Democrat, had vetoed more than 50 bills approved by the Republican controlled Montana Legislature. Schweitzer has generated many headlines for vetoing, among others, legislation dealing with concealed weapons, medical marijuana, abortion, federal health care, mining with cyanide and employment taxation. Schweitzer, a clever and confident politician if ever there was one, seems to revel in casting the final vote and he has used ever occasion to bash the legislature.
Across the Bitterroots in Idaho meanwhile, Republican Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter, with an overwhelmingly GOP legislature, drew headlines for his one and only veto of the just completed session. Otter spread red ink on a bill dealing with state efforts to establish exchanges under the federal health insurance reform legislation, but he immediately issued an executive order restoring much of what had been in the vetoed bill. Few Republicans, publicly at least, said anything about the governor’s actions and the House Democratic leader actually praised the governor’s approach.
Otter administered his one veto of the 2011 session quietly and moved instantly to placate supporters with his executive order. while Schweitzer has been known to use a branding iron in front of the television cameras to mark up bills he doesn’t like. No kidding.
As CBS reported, Schweitzer recently “stood in front of the state capitol” in Helena, “and put the bills, one by one, on display. He then used a hot brand on each one, lighting the paper on fire and burning the word “VETO” into the wooden plank behind the bill.”
If the guv considered the bill frivolous, he used a “calf brand.”
George Washington, generally not the flamboyant type, issued the first presidential veto in 1792. George W. Bush made modern presidential history by not vetoing anything during his first five years in office. Bill Clinton, by contrast left office have used the veto 37 times. Barack Obama has issued two vetoes.
Franklin Roosevelt is the all-time champion vetoer at the federal level. He issued 635 during his three-plus terms. Grover Cleveland was no slouch, either. He killed a total of 584 bills in two terms. Thomas Jefferson, by contrast, never vetoed a bill in eight years.
Governors and presidents, as a general rule, hate to have vetoes overridden. It’s seen as a mark of political weakness. But even the powerful FDR was overridden nine times, while the lowly Andrew Johnson holds the all-time record for having the Congress reject his veto. Congress did it 15 times to Andy.
The veto can be both a blunt instrument and a subtle tool used to punish, reward, make a political statement or chart a policy course. Often it is all of the above.
There could hardly be more contrast between the approach Schweitzer has taken and the line Otter had walked. Is one approach more politically or publicly effective than the other? The verdict on that may have to wait for another legislative session for as much as governors and presidents hate to be overridden, legislators hate to see their handiwork vetoed.
Most of the time, however, the final vote is the final vote whether its done quietly or with a smokin’ hot branding iron.