Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi advocates for H.R. 2712 before the Senate Subcommittee on Immigration and Refugee Affairs, January 23, 1990. Photo Credit: Bettmann/Getty Images

By David Kurlander

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi last week sharply criticized President Trump’s proposed executive actions on COVID-19 relief, calling the plans “meager, weak, and unconstitutional.” Thirty years ago, Pelosi—then a second-term congresswoman—was locked in another battle about Executive Orders with President George H.W. Bush. The back-and-forth, over their divergent responses to the Chinese Communist Party’s June 1989 massacre of pro-democracy activists at Tiananmen Square, concerned many of the same debates over presidential authority that have returned to the fore today…

When the tanks arrived at Tiananmen, Pelosi’s national reputation was colored primarily by her famous brother and father, both of whom had served as flamboyant mayors of Baltimore. Back home in San Francisco, however, Pelosi—who had been chair of the California Democratic Party—was already known as a vocal activist for fighting HIV/AIDS and advocating for affordable housing. Pelosi’s constituency also included San Francisco’s thriving Chinatown, the country’s largest Chinese American community and a locus of the 40,000 Chinese scholars studying in the U.S. 

During the weeks following Tiananmen Square protests in June 1989, many of these Chinese students—and especially those who publicly supported the demonstrators—reached out to Pelosi regarding their J-1 Visas, which required them to return to a potentially dangerous situation in China for two years before seeking permanent residence in the States. Pelosi’s policy team quickly drafted H.R. 2712, a resolution that would allow all scholars from China to remain in the U.S. until 1994. In November, Pelosi’s bill sailed through both Houses with rare unanimous support, and put the junior lawmaker in the role of de facto congressional spokesperson for the Chinese Democracy movement. 

President Bush’s foreign policy team watched Pelosi’s rise with increasing trepidation. Bush had publicly stated that he had cut off all high-level negotiations with the Chinese as a result of their human rights abuses. Behind the scenes, however, he had arranged for his National Security Advisor Brent Scowcroft—who died last week at 95—to visit Chinese Vice Premier Deng Xiaoping in Beijing and reassure him that the U.S. was eager to de-escalate. 

“We were certain that such confrontational legislation would result in China shutting down the student exchange program, which would be a real tragedy,” Scowcroft explained in his shared memoir with Bush, A World Transformed. “The exposure of Chinese students to American values was one of the best hopes for future internal change in China.” The Chinese had already halted the Fulbright Scholarship Program due to congressional response to Tiananmen.

Bush prepared to veto Pelosi’s bill. He recognized in his diary that he was taking a staggeringly risky political position: “I’ll still catch some hell from the libs and from the conservatives. It’s probably the toughest call I’ve had to make, but we’re going to be blasted. It isn’t easy…but you’ve just got to call them the way you see them.”

On November 30, 1989, Bush announced the veto. In the place of H.R. 2712, he revealed that he had instructed Attorney General Dick Thornburgh to inform the Immigration and Naturalization Service to stop enforcing the J-1 Visa requirements. Bush argued that this quieter solution would guarantee the same protections for the students while avoiding an international incident.

Pelosi was nonplussed, and got to work organizing the House override of Bush’s veto. On January 23, 1990, after the holiday recess and on the eve of the vote, Pelosi held an emotional press conference with House leaders of both parties at the bottom of the Capitol steps. Flanking either side of the podium were framed portraits of “Tank Man,” the unidentified protester whose act of defiance had become a global symbol. Pelosi gestured to a massive papier-mâché replica of the Goddess of Democracy, another Tiananmen icon. “It is no accident that this symbol is a take-off on the Statue of Liberty, because our own Democracy has been a model for the Chinese,” she said. 

The following day, the House overrode Bush’s veto by a remarkable 390-5 tally, far surpassing the two-thirds vote required in the chamber. The only hurdles left for Pelosi’s prized legislation were the Senate and the ire of the Chinese government. A spokesperson for China’s foreign ministry immediately labeled the House vote a “hegemonous act” and warned the other chamber against making the same move. 

Bush and Scowcroft went into overdrive in the Senate, even enlisting former President Nixon to circle the wagons for Republicans. In the desperate rush for votes, Bush wrote a handwritten letter to uncertain Senator Connie Mack, describing his earlier directions to Attorney General Thornburgh to suspend the J-1 Visa requirements as an “Executive Order.” He repeated the phraseology during a White House press conference the night before the Senate vote: “The Bill is totally unnecessary…we’ve got to be fair in what has already been accomplished by Executive Order.” The veto was sustained by four votes, 62-37. Bush’s invocation of the Order may have made the difference. 

The only problem was that Bush had never issued an Executive Order, which is formalized in the Federal Register and cannot be easily revoked. More than two months after the successful veto fight, the New York Times revealed that Bush’s letter to Thornburgh was simply an “executive directive,” which carried no force of law or specific enforcement mechanism. Pelosi realized that Bush had manipulated the facts to push the veto through the Senate. “He was talking about an Executive Order,” she told reporters after the Times story. “He didn’t say ‘a letter I wrote to the Attorney General.’” 

Bush immediately ate crow and signed the Executive Order. “I think that will certainly convince people, those that might be skeptical, that I have every intention of keeping my word,” Bush explained, calling the mistake “a technical matter.” China, seemingly grasping that Bush had given his all, did not retaliate.

Pelosi has since fought hundreds of battles over presidential authority. The broad contours of her first great congressional struggle, however—calling out a false Executive Order, speaking of broad democratic ideals, and engaging over the appropriate rhetoric for discussing China—all loom large as she gears up for yet another round. 

For more on the Bush administration’s post-Tiananmen actions, check out Kristina Spohr’s excellent Post-Wall, Post-Square: Rebuilding the World After 1989. For a broader look at the political fault lines that emerged around China’s human rights abuses, read Robert L. Suettinger’s Beyond Tiananmen: The Politics of U.S-China Relations 1989-2000. And for more on Speaker Pelosi, grab a copy of Molly Ball’s recently published Pelosi.

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