The virtues of being overridden

Ronald Reagan is, I am sure, still crestfallen (or perhaps something stronger) for having had his veto of the supplemental budget bill overridden in the Senate.

It was his first experience in Washington in being thus repudiated over an economic issue. It must have been all the more unpleasant because so many Republicans joined the opposition on this occasion. The tally among Senate Republicans was 21 against the Republican President, 26 in his favor. Add that the Senate is a chamber in which Republicans have a majority and hence control the machinery.

But, for an American President not yet two full years in office and with a midterm election just ahead for his party, there are some pluses as well as minuses.

One plus is that the 21 Republicans who went off the reservation on the budget bill issue are bound to feel some tinge of political contrition. Having gone against their President on this matter, and thus proved their political independence (''he wears no man's collar''), most are likely to try to make amends in the months ahead.

A second plus is that the defeat for the President saves him from a bigger budget imbalance. The difference is small, only about $2 billion. But still, Congress took the budget down below the President's proposal. In that respect the party will benefit from the President's defeat.

Biggest gain will probably come from a lesson in practical politics. Mr. Reagan has learned something new about how to run the government in Washington. In terms of political experience he is still at best a sophomore. Any President who at such a time as this accepts a challenge from the leadership of his own party in the Congress is likely to have to take at least one hard fall.

This was a hard fall - to be so repudiated on a budget matter by an overall vote in the Senate of 60 to 30, after losing in the House by 301 to 117. It is as surprising in Washington history as the time Franklin Delano Roosevelt tried to pack the Supreme Court, and was overridden. Was Mr. Roosevelt a worse President for having been overridden? On the contrary, he was a wiser and politically more astute President for having suffered that humiliation. He was not again quite so overconfident and quite so cavalier about the advice of the leaders of his party in the Senate.

It is a reasonable prospect that relations between White House and party leaders in the Congress will improve now because both will be on best behavior, both wanting to avoid a repetition of such a breach in the party leadership in Washington. Certainly Mr. Reagan will listen more attentively to the views of his Capitol Hill leaders than before this rift.

Besides, who are the real losers? The issue between President and Congress was over priorities. The President wanted $2 billion more for military spending, less for student loans, jobs for the handicapped, jobs for older citizens, and various other social programs.

Many Washington experts in defense matters think that Mr. Reagan's arms program is already overfunded. The prevailing view is that the Pentagon cannot spend what it is being offered. So it is unlikely that the $2 billion the Congress took out of the military budget will in fact do any real harm to the military posture of the United States. It just might stimulate more careful thinking among military budget planners.

As for the upcoming midterm elections. The polls seem to show that Mr. Reagan's greatest asset is not his set of policies but his personality. He is seen by the public at large as ''Mr. Nice Guy'' who can take his lumps and come up smiling. He has a remarkable ability to make a joke out of a political defeat. He has done so this time, threatening tongue in cheek to give Congress more vetoes over the 1983 appropriation bills. What will really happen is more careful planning before more vetoes are tried.

Meanwhile with the American economy improving - at least a little and perhaps substantially - and with a more professional tone spreading over the surface of Reagan foreign policy since the arrival of George Shultz at the State Department , Republican prospects for the November elections are certainly well up from expectations of six months ago.

Back in midwinter when unemployment and interest rates were both still rising and businessmen were wailing - the polls showed the Democrats improving their position in both houses of Congress. But now interest rates are declining, the stock market is booming, businessmen are regaining their confidence that there may be a tomorrow - and Mr. Reagan takes a political spill, and comes up smiling.

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.