President Clinton made good yesterday on his pledge to veto a bill limiting legal damages against the makers of defective products. The action set off a round of partisan sniping between the White House and Republicans on Capitol Hill over who was on the side of consumers and who had fallen victim to special interests.
"I do not believe that we have to have a legal system which shuts the door on the legitimate problems of ordinary people in order to get rid of frivolous lawsuits and excess legal expenses," Clinton said when asked if he was vetoing the bill to bail out trial lawyers, who have contributed heavily to his political campaigns.
Earlier in the day, Senate Majority Leader Robert J. Dole (Kan.), the presumptive GOP presidential nominee, had leveled precisely this charge.
"Our legal system must be reformed to encourage people to be responsible for their own actions," Dole said in a statement. "And it should quickly and efficiently compensate victims, not lawyers. . . . Unfortunately, with today's veto, the president will be confirming what we already suspected: It is the trial lawyers who are calling the shots at the White House."
The bill did not pass Congress by enough votes to overturn a veto, and Republicans have decided to use the issue against Clinton in the fall election rather than try to rally votes for an override.
Clinton had weeks ago signaled his opposition to the product liability bill, but the event nonetheless came with a flourish, as the White House assembled victims of faulty products, or their surviving family members, in the Oval Office to witness the 15th veto of his presidency. The group included a Kentucky woman whose daughter was killed when a school bus with allegedly unsafe gas tanks blew up in a crash and a Minneapolis woman who lost her fertility from a defective intrauterine device.
Republicans were similarly theatrical when they sent the bill to Clinton, bringing forward a woman whose 9-year-old daughter depends on a medical device built with materials that some manufacturers will no longer sell because they fear lawsuits.
Both sides were seeking to put a human face on a piece of legislation dealing with important but quite technical corners of the law outside the knowledge of most voters. The battle pits politically potent lobbies against each other -- big business vs. trial lawyers.
Dole cited a study from the Center for Responsive Politics showing that lawyers and law firms gave Clinton's reelection campaign $2.5 million during the first nine months of 1995. But a consumer group that had urged a Clinton veto countered that corporations and various groups supporting the bill gave nearly $6 million to members of Congress last year.
The bill's most dramatic effect would have been to limit punitive awards in both state and federal courts to $250,000 or twice the amount of actual damages, whichever is greater. Dole said such lawsuits cost consumers about $150 billion a year through higher prices.
However, Clinton said that measure "can reward wrongdoers and diminish the deterrent impact of punitive damages." He also objected to provisions that would have prevented lawsuits against products more than 15 years after sale.
Clinton, a former law professor and state attorney general, said he supports the general idea of legal reform and improving product liability laws. But his administration has not pushed for such measures, focusing instead on criticizing Republican proposals.
Yesterday's veto fits an established pattern set on budget legislation and an earlier bill that would have limited lawsuits in securities cases. Clinton has repeatedly pushed moderate positions in his rhetoric but in the end sided with traditional Democratic constituencies when the time came to sign or veto.
The product liability measure had more than just Republican support. When Clinton first signaled opposition in March, Sen. John D. "Jay" Rockefeller IV (D-W.Va.), a Clinton ally but a supporter of the bill, complained, "Unfortunately, special interests and raw political considerations in the White House have overridden sound policy judgment."
But Clinton noted yesterday that Republicans have been far from consistent in their own rhetoric and actions. While Republicans have said their mission is to return power to the states, he noted, the product liability bill imposes a national policy.
"This bill overrides the laws of all 50 states," Clinton said, "in spite of the fact that 40 of the 50 states in the last 10 years have acted on their own to reform the tort laws, and more than 30 of them have acted in the area of product liability."
CAPTION: Mike Moore, attorney general of Mississippi, and Janey Fair of Mothers Against Drunk Driving join President Clinton at White House announcement.