President Bush took the extraordinary step of preemptively issuing a veto threat against an entire category of potential legislative tactics on Thursday afternoon. In a letter to congressional leaders, Bush warned that any move to use appropriations riders or the budget process to provide support for abortion, or to undermine existing protections against such support, would be vetoed.
“I am concerned that this year Congress may consider legislation that could substantially change Federal policies and laws on abortion,” Bush wrote, “and allow taxpayer dollars to be used for the destruction of human life. I am writing to make sure there is no misunderstanding of my views on these important issues.” His letter left no room for misunderstanding. “I will veto any legislation that weakens current Federal policies and laws on abortion,” he concluded, “or that encourages the destruction of human life at any stage.”
The warning was targeted particularly at a series of amendments (or so-called “riders”) to appropriations bills, accumulated over the past several decades by the efforts of the pro-life movement. Among such riders are, for instance, a prohibition on the use of federal dollars to fund abortions (known as the Hyde Amendment), prohibitions on discrimination against health-care providers who refuse to perform abortions, a prohibition on the use of public funds to destroy human embryos (known as the Dickey-Wicker Amendment), and another that bars the patenting of human beings at any stage of development. Some of these, like the Hyde Amendment, have been around for decades. Others, like the patent and conscience protection rules, are only a few years old and have never faced a Democratic majority in Congress. Many could well be on the table as the 2008 budget process gets underway in the coming weeks. And beyond threatening these existing protections, pro-lifers worry that Democrats will also find more clever means of using public dollars to support abortion or the destruction of developing life. Bush’s letter was therefore clearly aimed not only at protecting existing riders, but at establishing a line against new ones that would push in the opposite direction — in favor of taxpayer support of abortion or embryo destruction.
The letter is unusual, but not unprecedented. Indeed, in June of 1991, President George H. W. Bush sent Democratic leaders of Congress a very similar letter, making much the same pledge. This year, in the wake of the Democratic takeover of Congress, Republicans in both the House and Senate sent the White House letters requesting that the president send such a message, as they put it, “reaffirming your strong pro-life policy convictions and serving notice that you will veto any legislation that weakens present pro-life policy.”
These letters from House and Senate members had 155 and 34 signatures, respectively, which would be enough to uphold a veto in both houses. In effect, this means the Democrats can know in advance that a move to weaken existing pro-life measures or encourage the destruction of nascent life would not make it through the process, and would only hold up the relevant budget bills.
Bush’s move is essentially defensive. He has no means of aggressive action on the question of pro-life appropriations riders, he can only stand in the way if Congress seeks to cross the line. By sending the letter, he makes clear to congressional leaders that he will indeed protect that line, and that he has the support he needs to do so.
The president’s letter is an important and quite reassuring step, and should help secure some vital hard-won protections of human life and human dignity. But more than that, and especially as the 2008 campaign season takes shape, the letter shows why elections matter, and why for social conservatives the question of who occupies the White House should call for careful reflection about more than just the judicial philosophies of the various candidates.
The president, after all, is much more than an appointer of judges. He and the people he chooses to staff the executive branch make countless daily decisions about the enforcement of laws, the crafting of regulations, the setting of priorities, and the management of programs. These small decisions take place mostly out of sight, and they’re easy to ignore, but they count for a lot, and the administration’s attitude — a function of the president’s personal views, and those of the people around him — therefore matter a great deal too. Thursday’s letter helps demonstrate why social conservatives should work to elect a president who agrees with them, or at least would feel some obligation to them, on questions of principle and policy, not only of judicial nominations. Important as they are, judges are not everything.
— Yuval Levin is a fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center and senior editor of The New Atlantis magazine.