• U.S.

I Will Veto Again and Again

5 minute read
Amy Wilentz

It was only the opening round in what seems likely to be a yearlong battle over the budget, but Ronald Reagan threw his hardest knockdown punch. The President called reporters and cameramen into the Oval Office to witness his veto of a bill that would have extended about $2 billion in additional federal loan guarantees to debt-burdened farmers. Said Reagan: “Someone must stand up to those who say, ‘Here’s the key, there’s the Treasury, just take as many of those hard-earned tax dollars as you want.’ ” Moreover, he pledged, “I will veto again and again until spending is brought under control.” Legislators made no attempt to override the veto. They did not have the votes.

However, the victory did not improve Reagan’s chances of getting the kind of budget that he wants, featuring another big increase in military outlays and further drastic cuts in many civilian programs. To the contrary: the Senate Budget Committee voted 18 to 4 to give the Pentagon $11 billion less than Reagan recommended for fiscal 1986, which starts on Oct. 1, and $79 billion less than the President is requesting over the next three fiscal years. It proposed to deny the military any increase at all next fiscal year, beyond what is necessary to keep pace with inflation, and hold the increase in 1987 and 1988 to 3% in excess of inflation. Reagan is asking for increases of 5.9% above inflation next year and more than 8% the following two years.

At the same time, the committee rejected many of the President’s demands for spending cuts, opting instead for freezes. It took essentially that approach on farm-price supports, student loans, mass-transit subsidies, Medicare and Medicaid, among other programs. But the committee deadlocked on Social Security, schizophrenically voting down both a proposal to eliminate cost of living adjustments in benefits and a proposal to leave the COLAs alone.

White House Spokesman Larry Speakes grumbled that the committee is “marching in the wrong direction.” Reagan, he said, is “prepared to go to the people” to get Congress to change course. The fiery language of the farm veto presumably gave a first taste of what the President might say.

It started when Republican Robert Dornan of California, in a speech before a conservative group, called New York Democrat Thomas Downey “a draft-dodging wimp.” Downey heard about it and a couple of days later, as Dornan was walking out of the House chamber, put a hand on the Californian’s arm to prevent him from leaving. Asked Downey: “Did you say those things about me?” Dornan wheeled around. “Yes. So what?” Moments later, Dornan grabbed the babyfaced New Yorker by the collar and tie, pulled him close and warned, “Stay out of my face, now and forever!”

The expletives-deleted confrontation brought to the surface a long-standing feud. Downey, 36, received a 1-Y medical draft deferral during the Viet Nam War because of a pierced eardrum. Dornan, 51, a former Air Force jet pilot, was in flight training at the tail end of the Korean conflict. “I was getting my Air Force wings when Downey was in kindergarten,” says Dornan.

Two years ago, Dornan, a three-term Congressman who had just lost a race for the Senate, was supposedly in line for an Administration appointment as a consultant to the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency. From the floor of Congress, Downey gave a short, sarcastic encomium to Dornan’s qualifications for the post. “Mr. Speaker,” he began, “rarely have we seen an intellect like Bob’s.” Dornan never got the post.

Since then, the rancor has been aggravated by philosophical differences. Dornan, once dubbed “B-1 Bob,” has flown the controversial bomber and is a devoted fan. He also comes down on the Administration’s side as a staunch advocate of U.S. support for the anti-Sandinista contras in Nicaragua. Downey calls the B-1 “a flying frying pan” and has repeatedly criticized policies on Nicaragua.

Asked to define wimp, Dornan says, “Someone who attacks someone behind his back and doesn’t say it to his face.” The word was bandied about during the 1984 presidential campaign, when both Walter Mondale and George Bush found themselves in the uncomfortable position of having to show that they were not wimps. Few dictionaries include the word; it may surprise some who use it that, according to Eric Partridge’s slang dictionary, it means “a (young) woman,” perhaps from “whimper.”

Congress has a proud history of conflict resolution. Lawmakers occasionally settled things at ten paces, until William Graves of Kentucky killed Jonathan Cilley of Maine in 1839, prompting Congress to pass an antidueling law. Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner, a master of invective, once derided a colleague as a “noisome, squat and nameless animal.” In 1856 Preston Brooks, a South Carolina Congressman bent on avenging an insult to an infirm uncle in the Senate, came upon Sumner from behind and, guttapercha cane in hand, beat him senseless on the Senate floor. Brooks resigned but was immediately voted back into office by his delighted constituents. The following year Laurence Keitt of South Carolina called Galusha Grow of Pennsylvania a “puppy,” and about 30 Congressmen, fortified by alcohol, began a free-for-all. In the excitement, John Potter of Wisconsin grabbed William Barksdale of Mississippi by the hair and pulled off his wig. “Hooray, boys!” Potter yelled. “I’ve got his scalp!”

Downey has threatened to lodge a formal complaint against Dornan because of the threat of bodily harm. He has also demanded an apology. “For what?” Dornan asked a Washington Post reporter. “For calling him a wimp? I am willing to concede that perhaps he just walks, talks and acts like a little arrogant wimp. But maybe it’s disinformation.” In the end, though, Dornan wimped out. What was he doing with Tom’s collar in his fist? “I was just straightening his tie.”

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