Last week I listened to an interview with Amity Shlaes who was talking about her new book Coolidge, which is about the presidency of Calvin Coolidge, our 30th president. Coolidge did something no modern republican president has been able to do – he cut government spending and he cut taxes, even in the midst of a recession. It was a recession we don’t hear too much about because it didn’t last very long. There’s no question that Coolidge was a great president, despite his nickname “Silent Cal.” If only we had more silence from a president these days.
I haven’t read the book, but Shlaes gave us a preview in The Wall Street Journal.
Three factors gave Silent Cal the ability to cut as he did, each suggesting a governing approach that would be useful today.
The first advantage was a gift from his predecessor, President Harding: the Budget and Accounting Act of 1921. Theretofore, the president had enjoyed no general oversight of the budget. Bills came to the chief executive’s desk like requests crafted by clever children, hard to turn down. Under the Accounting Act, the executive branch gained the authority to present a unified budget and a research staff in the form of the Budget Bureau, a forerunner to today’s Office of Management and Budget. The executive also had the authority to impound money already appropriated.
The second advantage was one Coolidge himself supplied: the discipline to use budget tools, new and old. Harding had dramatically cut the budget, still bloated from World War I, but he lacked the stamina to keep up the work. Harding also made bad appointments of profligates or outright criminals, whose corrupt agencies undermined his savings drive. By the time Harding died, Congress was already weary of postwar austerity and confident it could squeeze more spending out of Coolidge, who might only hold office until elections the next year.
But Coolidge came in like a lion, determined to make austerity permanent. Coolidge met with his budget director, Gen. Herbert Lord, on his first day in office and routinely thereafter. The two men soon announced that they would deepen planned cuts in two politically sensitive areas: veterans and on District of Columbia public works. “I am for economy, and after that I am for more economy,” Coolidge told voters—who gladly kept him in the White House when he ran in 1924.
Against Congress, Coolidge also moved boldly. The jovial Harding had vetoed only six bills. Coolidge vetoed 50. “It is much more important to kill bad bills than to pass good ones,” Coolidge once advised his father. Coolidge proved a maestro of the pocket veto. He twice vetoed farming subsidies and he stopped government entry into the utilities industry by killing a project to operate the old wartime plant at Muscle Shoals in Alabama.
Coolidge’s third advantage was insight into what might be called fiscal trust. The president understood that ambitious budget cuts would be accepted if he could “align” them with ambitious tax cuts. The press wondered how two such taciturn men as Coolidge and his Treasury secretary, Andrew Mellon, managed to chat long enough to plot a tax crusade. But the two shared an outlook and “conversed in pauses,” as was written at the time.
That’s pretty impressive. I just have to wonder if “Silent Cal” would have been as effective in this day and age. We have the 24 hour news cycle, blogs picking apart everything a politician says and does, and a media that’s biased beyond belief. Could Coolidge have withstood the onslaught? In the video below he is making the case that the cost of government hurts everybody, from the wage earners to the wealthy. I’m sure if he were around today, he would have been a bit more polished, as this was all new back then. I’m more focused on his words. I’d like to think that this message would resonate today, but I don’t know if it’s too late. The republicans that really care should take note, and just try to polish the message a little bit. It’s as true today as it was back then. Despite the fact that we have a president who thrives on controversy and crisis, it doesn’t have to be this way. Then again, Barack Obama was reelected.
Here’s the link to buy the book. The Kindle price has already come down.