|OVER THE LINE?
Is the Line-Item Veto constitutional?
May 5, 1998
in this forum:
Is the line-item veto that big a shift in power? What will be the impact of the Court's ruling? Is the veto giving the president more control over something he is held accountable for? Isn't the line-tem a half-step up from the regular veto authority? Will the line-item veto streamline government, or just backlog it even more? A question from Kelly Mohler of Rockwall, TX: Isn't there a case to be made that as more responsibility has been shifted to the president shouldn't some of the powers be shifted as well? What we are really talking about is a small revision authority that allows a president, who is now held accountable for much of the legislative and budget issues in Washington, to exercise a minor check on Congress.
Alan Morrison, head of the Public Citizen Litigation Group, responds:
The issue before the Supreme Court is not whether the President should or should not have more of a check on Congress, but whether the check in the line item veto act is consistent with the existing systems of checks and balances in the constitution. As of now, 43 states have line item vetoes of one sort or another for their Governors, but in each case they are part of the state's constitution.
John Cooney, former OMB deputy counsel, responds:
You are correct that the Line Item Veto gives the President a minor additional power over spending in comparison to Congress. I believe experience proves that creation of a temporary, statutory (i.e., repealable in whole or for specific bills) standing recission authority enhances the President's relative authority over spending preferences by a measurable, but minor amount. Certainly, the experience of the first year does not bear out concerns of opponents that creation of this standing authority would effectuate a major shift in the balance of power between Congress and the President.
The Line Item/recission power is an inherently limited tool, because of political factors. The best the Line Item Veto could hope to achieve would be to make a modest contribution toward keeping a budget gap from reopening once the budget has neared a rough balance. By giving the President the power to refuse to spend money for real outliers -- that is, spending without valid public purposes beyond local favoritism -- this mechanism might have some deterrent effect on logrolling ( you scratch my back, I'll scratch yours) in assembling appropriations bills. By giving the President the power to require Congress to cast highly visible votes on outrageous spending items (in the recission override process), this mechanism can give the President limited power to disaggregate huge spending bills, where pork barrel items can now be hidden.
David Stockman, President Reagan's first budget director, proved that the deficit cannot be controlled by disaggregating the budget and seeking savings one program at a time. Efforts to pursue a program-by-program reduction produced minor spending reduction effects while generating enormous political opposition to the President's entire program. For this reason, by 1985 Congress moved (in the Gramm-Rudman bill) to an aggregate approach to deficit control, through the current system of overall budget caps and defined scorekeeping rules. It is no exaggeration to say that the Stockman experience proved that it is easier to control the entire budget than it was to squeeze modest savings from the SBA loan program or the dairy and sugar subsidies.
The Line Item Veto thus is a throwback to a disaggregation approach, which proved unworkable on a broad scale. Its value is that it allows the President to refuse to spend money that both he and the Appropriations Committee leaders understand are not justified in public policy terms, but that the Chairman had to include in the bill to obtain the votes necessary to move through both Houses.