As the nation hurtles toward another possible fiscal showdown, both President Barack Obama and House Republicans are engaging in a pre-emptive blame game.
"Last month, through a series of Statements of Administration Policy, the president announced that he would not sign ANY spending bills this year unless sequestration spending cuts are eliminated – and replaced with his plan for higher, job-destroying taxes," wrote House Speaker John Boehner in a statement on his website on July 22, 2013. (Sequestration refers to the mandatory, across-the-board cuts in every federal agency that took effect earlier this year.)
The Ohio Republican was citing a pair of messages Obama released in June called Statements of Administration Policy. SAPs, as they are known, are used to officially convey whether an administration will support or oppose a particular bill pending in Congress.
We located the two statements in question, both of which addressed annual bills to fund parts of the federal government: H.R. 2216 (the Military Construction and Veterans Affairs and Related Agencies Appropriations Act of 2014) and H.R. 2217 (the Department of Homeland Security Appropriations Act of 2014).
Both SAPs were released on June 3, and they had nearly identical language in an underlined section, the usual signal of the document’s main point.
"Unless this bill passes the Congress in the context of an overall budget framework that supports our recovery and enables sufficient investments in education, infrastructure, innovation and national security for our economy to compete in the future, the President’s senior advisors would recommend that he veto (the bill) and any other legislation that implements the House Republican Budget framework."
We decided to check two elements of Boehner’s claim. Did Obama really say he "would not sign" the bills? And did Obama’s potential veto hinge on "sequestration spending cuts (being) eliminated"?
Veto threat kabuki
An almost Talmudic hierarchy of veto-threat language has developed over the years, remaining much the same regardless of who is in the White House.
Keith Hennessey, who spent several years as a senior aide to President George W. Bush and is now a lecturer at Stanford University, has developed a handy primer for the linguistic nuances of SAPs. The first three of his examples involve gradations of approval for pending bills. From there, the language proceeds, with increasing degrees of opposition, to:
• The administration opposes the bill.
• The administration strongly opposes the bill.
• If the president were presented this bill for signature, a particular administration official would recommend that he veto it.
• If the president were presented this bill for signature, the president’s senior advisers would recommend he veto it.
• If the president were presented this bill for signature, he would veto it.
• If the president is presented this bill for signature, he will veto it.
• If this bill makes it to my desk, I will veto it. (This one is more commonly used in a public appearance than in a Statement of Administration Policy.)
So the statements that Boehner referred to used language that was about half-way up the hierarchy of presidential opposition.
We asked several experts in the back-and-forth between the White House and Congress whether they thought it was reasonable for Boehner to call Obama’s language a sign that he "would not sign" the bills in question. Most took a middle ground, saying Boehner was right to suggest strong opposition by Obama but wrong to imply that Obama had closed the door to negotiation.
Obama’s wording "is customary for a veto threat communicated through OMB -- they always leave enough wiggle room for compromise," said Donald Wolfensberger, a former Republican staff director of the House Rules Committee who currently directs the Congress Project at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.
Roy T. Meyers, a political scientist and budget expert at the University of Maryland-Baltimore County, agreed, saying that Obama’s wording is usually "meant as a strong ‘no’ … but a ‘no’ that is meant to say he is firm in his position and that it's time to negotiate."
Does Obama’s threat hinge on sequestration?
Obama’s SAPs don’t explicitly say the restoration of sequestration cuts would trigger a veto, mentioning instead "legislation that implements the House Republican Budget framework."
In his statement, then, Boehner makes a reasonable point: Obama opposes the House Republican budget framework, which doesn’t envision restoration of past sequestration cuts. In fact, it would make even deeper cuts.
The White House has "made very clear that their idea of a budget framework does away with sequestration," said Brendan Buck, a spokesman for Boehner. "So he’s saying he won’t sign these bills absent a plan to do away with sequestration."
However, budget experts say Boehner went too far by suggesting that sequestration is Obama’s specific line in the sand. The experts say that while Obama strongly opposes the current design of the House Republicans’ budget, he left vague exactly what provisions he would agree to. Obama didn’t say that restoration of sequestration cuts was non-negotiable.
"The president said only that he would veto bills unless it was part of a budget agreement, but he absolutely did not say what that agreement should be," said Stan Collender, a former Democratic staff member of the House and Senate Budget Committees who is now a partner at the lobbying and consulting firm Qorvis. "He did not insist that sequestration not happen or that taxes be raised."
Boehner said that Obama has "announced that he would not sign ANY spending bills this year unless sequestration spending cuts are eliminated."
Obama did issue a strongly worded statement opposing two spending bills backed by House Republicans, but Boehner exaggerated how firm a veto threat it was and underplayed the president’s openness to negotiation. Meanwhile, Obama did say he opposed bills enacting the House Republican budget, but he didn’t make restoration of sequestration cuts a non-negotiable demand in any negotiated deal. On balance, we rate Boehner’s claim Half True.