Impending Budget Battle Reminiscent of 1995-96 Budget Showdown?

The Washington Post ran an interesting piece yesterday, November 14, by Peter Baker titled, Bush Veto Sets Up Clash on Budget, Democrats Make War-Funds Threat. The article begins:

A budget dispute erupted into a full-scale battle Tuesday as President Bush vetoed the Democrats’ top-priority domestic spending bill and the party’s Senate leader threatened to withhold war funding if the president does not agree to pull out of Iraq.

The long-anticipated clash came to a head as Bush rejected a $606 billion bill to fund education, health and labor programs, complaining that it is too expensive and is larded with pork. Within hours, Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) declared that Bush will not get more money to pay for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan this year unless he accepts a plan to complete troop withdrawals by the end of next year.

The Washington Post article goes on to compare the impending budget showdown between President Bush and the Democratic Congress to the infamous 1995-96 budget battle between President Clinton and a then-Republican Congress — a battle which resulted in several government shutdowns and widely is considered to have ended in a political victory for President Clinton. In fact, the article notes that “[a] politically weakened Clinton used that episode to redefine himself, just as an unpopular Bush wants to wage a veto fight to demonstrate strength with 14 months left in office and to play off a Congress with as little public support as that led by Newt Gingrich a dozen years ago.”

Having written about the 1995-96 budget showdown in some detail (see article), and having given some thought to separation of powers issues in the budget context, I offer these observations in response to the comparison invited by the Washington Post article:

1. The 1995-96 budget battle undoubtedly taught that the President has the political and procedural leverage in a head-to-head showdown with Congress. Among other things, the Chief Executive has a built-in media advantage because he can fly around the country making speeches that vilify Congress and explaining why he simply had to veto the atrocious budget Congress sent him. Moreover, he has the ability to speak as one voice for his Administration, whereas Congressional leaders must struggle to keep various legislative factions together and to represent the will of a multi-member body.

2. Nevertheless, there are key differences between the impending 2007-08 budget showdown and the 1995-96 episode. First, the root cause of public dissatisfaction with the 104th Congress in 1995 is substantially, and materially, different than the root cause of public dissatisfaction with the 110th Congress in 2007. Public ire with the Newt-Gingrich-led Republican Congress arose as a result of that Congress’ aggressive insistence on implementing radical policy shifts (embodied in the Contract With America) through the budget process, and on its (and Newt Gingrich’s) willingness to hold the rest of the budget hostage as a weapon to force the President to go along with this radical remaking of government. Public dissatisfaction with the current Democratic Congress, by contrast, is based on this Congress’ failure, thus far, to stand up to the President — and particularly on its failure to get American troops out of Iraq. If Congress now starts a budget battle precisely to stand up (finally) to President Bush on the Iraq issue, public reaction to that showing of backbone could be quite different than it was 12 years ago, even if we end up with another government shutdown. The crucial difference may be that whereas the Contract With America originated with the Republican Party and represented its vision, the impetus for withdrawing troops from Iraq comes from the American people — not the Democratic Party — in the first instance.

3. Relatedly, President Clinton’s political weakness vis-a-vis the public stemmed from private scandals and the botched universal health care attempt, not from his refusal to scrap Medicaid or to shrink the size of the federal government in order to balance the budget (these latter being the substantive basis for his disagreement with the Republican Congress’ proposed budget). Thus, the Republican Congress in 1995 could not counter President Clinton’s attacks on its proposed budget by shouting, “Oh yeah? Well, what about Travelgate? What about Whitewater?” By contrast, President Bush’s stunningly low approval rating has been earned almost entirely as a result of his handling of the Iraq War, a fact which provides Congressional Democrats with an easy counterpoint to his attacks on their spending proposals: Indeed, as the Washington Post article reports, Democrats openly have contrasted the $10 billion they seek in domestic spending (and that President Bush vetoed) with the $196 billion the President is seeking in additional war funding. The soundbite opportunities abound, as Senator Ted Kennedy’s comments in the Washington Post illustrate: “Cancer research, investments in our schools, job training, protecting workers and many other urgent priorities have all fallen victim to a president who squanders billions of dollars in Iraq but is unwilling to invest in America’s future.”

In the end, President Bush may well seize the bully-pulpit and turn this budget battle into a chance to reconnect with the American people. Stranger things have happened. But my money is on Congress this time, because if it sticks to its guns, then the President will be in the doubly unpopular position of both (1) causing a government shutdown by refusing to approve domestic spending that looks small in comparison to his war funding and (2) refusing to come to the table on troop withdrawal despite the public’s overwhelming desire to exit Iraq.

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