President Bush has discovered his veto powers, in the embodiment of that old adage: better late than never. And in another win for taxpayers, 141 House Republicans successfully voted to sustain the president’s veto of the $150 billion labor, health, and education appropriations bill. Spending in this legislation had ballooned by $10 billion over the president’s budget request, and had attracted some 2,200 earmarks worth nearly $1 billion.
This vote was a critical test of a letter circulated by the Republican Study Committee earlier this year that pledged: “Should you [the president] veto an FY 2008 appropriations bill because it would contribute to an overall spending level that exceeds your budget request, we will vote to sustain that veto.”
Eventually 147 House Republicans would put their name on that statement — mathematically enough to sustain a veto. However, in the recent 277-141 vote, 15 Republican House members who had signed that letter broke their word and voted to override the president’s veto.
Members of the “Flip-Flopping 15” include Reps. Judy Biggert (Ill.), Vern Buchanan (Fla.), Lincoln Diaz-Balart (Fla.), Mario Diaz-Balart (Fla.), Phil English (Pa.), Wayne Gilchrest (Md.), Ric Keller (Fla.), Steven LaTourette (Ohio), Chip Pickering (Miss.), Jon Porter (Nev.), Tom Reynolds (N.Y.), Mike Rogers (Ala.), Chris Shays (Conn.), Greg Walden (Oreg.), and Ed Whitfield (Ky.).
Thankfully, 17 House members who hadn’t signed the letter voted to sustain the veto. (Six signers didn’t vote and two are deceased.) But why the disheartening defections? Did House members with razor-thin 2006 election margins (and an eye on 2008) feel the need to neutralize big-spender opponents with a vote in favor of higher expenditures?
Considering that only 6 of the Flip-Flopping 15 were elected in 2006 with less than 55 percent of the vote (usually considered the “magic number” denoting safer seats), politics isn’t the whole answer. After all, numerous House members (including John Doolittle of California and Marilyn Musgrave of Colorado) who garnered election totals below 55 percent voted to sustain the veto.
Is the answer policy-related? There’s mixed evidence for this. Of all the appropriations bills for Republicans to reject, this was one of the most deserving. It included $10 billion of the proposed $23 billion in “over the budget request” spending that Democratic leaders have dangled in front of their rank-and-file as an inducement to toe the party line.
The Departments of Labor, Health, and Education house 14 of the 27 programs that were rated “ineffective” by the federally developed Program Assessment Rating Tool. Additionally, the president had recommended eliminating 56 programs worth $3.2 billion in the bill that were “duplicative, narrowly focused, or not producing results.” But the Democratic leadership funded them anyway. Twenty-one earmarks were “airdropped” into the conference bill — against the rules. On the measures of thrift, efficiency, and waste, this bill came up woefully short.
However, past behavior proves to be a good indicator of why certain House members voted the way they did. The National Taxpayers Union’s annual rating of Congress considers all votes relating to tax, spending, and regulatory policy. As could be expected, Republican House members who voted to sustain the veto received an average “B” grade in the 2006 rating. Members who signed the pledge letter but voted against the veto received an average “C” score. And those who didn’t sign the letter and voted to override the veto posted an average “C-” grade.
Big-government Republicans voted for higher federal spending, while limited-government stalwarts said no. But the wishy-washy Republicans in the middle could have used this opportunity to better demonstrate their stated (but rarely honored) commitments to fiscally responsible policy. With so many core GOP supporters clamoring for a return to first principles, this would have been good politics, too.
Another congressional test on spending is likely to come next week, with Senate majority leader Harry Reid (D., N.V.) suggesting that he might roll the remaining spending bills into a massive omnibus package. It’s almost certain to exceed the president’s top budget line, and Bush should veto it.
But will the Flip-Flopping 15 disappoint taxpayers again? Americans who pay the government’s bills will be waiting for the answer.