Why old days were so good Presidents used vetoes

Congress was stingy, its sessions were short

November 26, 1995|By Thomas V. DiBacco

AS THE FEDERAL government ends one miserable fiscal year and begins another today -- with even more red ink looming on the budget horizon -- Washington's bigwigs ought to stop bickering and read an economic history text. They'd find out that for most of the nation's history, the federal government had no problems with deficits; in fact, it ran a surplus for 82 of the 112 budget years before World War I.

There were several reasons for this good state of economic affairs.

First and foremost, there was no centralized budgeting for much of the early history of the United States. Instead of so many dollars being allotted in advance, agency heads had to go directly to the House Ways and Means Committee to ask for dough. Because that was often a humiliating experience for executive branch members, new programs were unlikely to be offered, let alone approved. To be sure, the first secretary of the Treasury, Alexander Hamilton, tried to get the centralized budgeting system that prevails today, but he failed.

Second, Congress didn't have time to spend much of the government's revenues. Its sessions were short and sweet. For example, the Third Congress met from December 1793 to June 1794, and then again from November 1794 to March 1795. The 18th Congress deliberated for five months in 1823-1824, and less than 90 days in 1824-25. Even as late as the 1880s, sessions averaged only about five months a year. And presidents rarely called Congress into special session.

Third, whenever Congress tried to spend too much money, presidents used the veto whip like crazy. Andrew Johnson turned down 29 congressional proposals. Ulysses S. Grant vetoed 93 bills, more than all his predecessors combined. In his first term, Grover Cleveland vetoed a record 414 bills, virtually all designed to reward some individual with money from the federal coffers. During his second term, Cleveland turned off Washington's money faucet 170 times with vetoes.

Fourth, when presidents in the 19th century attempted to spend too much money, Congress frequently retaliated by proposing cuts for the executive branch. It tried seven times to abolish the office of vice president. Not only would money be saved from such action, sponsors argued, but it would also prevent the office from being "carried into the market to be exchanged for the votes of some large states for president."

There were proposals to proscribe pay increases for chief executives, except every 10 years. There was even a constitutional amendment offered in 1808 that would have set the president's salary for all time at $15,000.

Of course, Congress kept the government in the black by enacting all sorts of excise taxes. In 1789, the excise tax on legal papers, unlike today's gasoline tax, stuck it to those who deserved to pay: lawyers and individuals eager to settle their differences in court. With lawyers almost as numerous as automobiles today, a tax on legal documents might pay off the national debt by next year.

If Congress and the president are unwilling to learn from the above proposals distilled from history, there is one other, rather painless way to solve budgetary woes. Simply change the fiscal year every so often. Instead of the year running from Oct. 1 to Sept. 30, make it run for six months, which could cut the deficit in half, or two months, which might lead to a savings of nearly 83 percent, give or take a few billion dollars.

Recall that we've already changed the fiscal year in recent decades. For nearly 200 years the fiscal year ended on June 30. Then, in 1976, during the nation's bicentennial, the fiscal year closing was changed to Sept. 30, resulting in one of the best years in terms of fewer budget firecrackers.

There is precedent for such tinkering, as illustrated by the words of President James A. Garfield. "All free governments," said Garfield, "are managed by the combined wisdom and folly of the people."

Thomas V. DiBacco is a historian at American University in Washington.

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