The President Loses One

October 07, 1992

Congress finally broke President Bush's string of 35 successful vetoes by overriding him decisively on the cable TV regulation bill. Note that Congress did it, not just congressional Democrats. A majority of Senate Republicans deserted him, including 10 or so the president lobbied personally. With the issue no longer in doubt, the vote in the House was even more lopsided. Enactment of the hotly contested bill carries three lessons: its appeal as a consumer measure in an election year, the strength of some special-interest groups and Mr. Bush's fading political clout.

In the long run, the most important lesson was Mr. Bush's failure to win what may be his last veto challenge before the election. A strong president secure in his re-election prospects should not have failed to turn around nine members of his own party -- not when there were 24 voting against him. He barely carried a majority of House Republicans with him. This is a president whose grip on power is slipping fast.

As for the new law's merits, it is above all a primer on how legislation is often -- and should never be -- passed by Congress. Its political appeal to legislators, especially those up for re-election next month, was its facade of consumer protection in a service of particular interest to the middle class. In many respects it is consumer legislation, but it is also a vehicle for competing special interests who are slugging it out with each other.

The new law empowers the Federal Communications Commission to regulate cable TV rates and quality of service in areas where there is no competition, which means just about everywhere. It would also ease the way for new competitors in the 97 percent of areas saddled with monopoly franchises. Since many cable operators raised prices sharply while decreasing service in the past eight years, the new controls are welcome.

Where Congress erred was in adding to this consumer measure a hodgepodge of special-interest baubles. If the new law does not slow or reverse the steep increase in cable charges, as cable companies predict, the greedy meddling by major broadcasters and other corporate giants will be responsible, not the new consumer protection regulations.

Now it is up to the FCC to devise sensible rules that foster service quality, fair prices and reasonable competition. If it does, cable conglomerates, broadcasters and other entertainment Goliaths can keep on jockeying for competitive advantage without making cable television viewers suffer for it.

In institutional terms, the veto override gives new meaning to Mr. Bush's jibes about a "gridlock Congress." His pen was half the problem; Democratic opposition to his programs was the other. The legislative branch, for all its faults, was the branch of government that finally, if only symbolically, broke the gridlock. You can be sure the next president will try to reimpose executive supremacy.

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