July 27th, 2009

Legislating with a Line-Item Veto

photo credit: White House

A political tool long coveted by Presidents of the United States and enjoyed by a majority of the governors of the separate states is the line-item veto. This power allows the executive officer to unilaterally repeal certain provisions contained in a bill being sent for his signature and is usually promoted by arguing that it would allow the president (or governor) to eliminate “pork barrel spending”.

This tool was briefly enjoyed by President Clinton after Congress passed a bill delegating to him a power they were not constitutionally permitted to delegate. It was used 11 times to strike 82 different items from legislation passed by Congress before the Supreme Court finally ruled it as being un-constitutional.

Like any tool, the veto power can be used in either a positive or negative fashion. Its impact is largely determined by the specific action in question, as well as the person wielding the power. Proponents like to claim that it would only be used to eliminate pork and reduce the deficit, but this cannot be guaranteed—especially if the power resides in only one individual. Further, when that President himself proposes budgets that increasingly and overwhelmingly mire the nation in debt, it is patently absurd to go around begging for a tool that will have a minuscule effect on the overall budget and other spending bills—much like the current President’s lip service to cutting costs, which in reality amounts 0.007% of the deficit. Many claim that such a Presidential power is necessary to remove the fat from the meat of a bill, but this assertion falls apart when there is far more fat than meat in the entire bill.

As is commonly the case, the underlying problem stems from congressional malfeasance. Savvy politicians know that the best way to get their bill passed is to add it on to a larger bill that has widespread popular support. By so doing, their pet legislative project stands a better chance at passing, since surely every patriotic person would vote for a bill that (insert your favorite noble quest here: creates world peace; supports our troops; fights terror; provides medicine to poor, single mothers; etc..)! Quickly, then, do congressional bills reach well over a thousand pages, and almost always have very little time for sunshine and scrutiny. Deception loves darkness, as do omnibus bills.

Publicly claiming that the line-item veto would be necessary to eliminate an unwelcome budgetary provision in a bill that passed in reality misdirects the focus and blame. Rather than conflating executive and legislative powers (as happens so often these days), Congress must stop making a melting pot out of every type of legislative ingredient fathomable. Passing bills that are focused on the proposed issue—and none else—would allow their attention (and that of the President with his constitutional veto power) to properly focus on specific pieces of legislation, and not a Jabba-the-Hut-like blob of legislative goo.

Likewise, any President that is truly serious about fiscal discipline [insert gut-wrenching laughter here] has other remedies available to attain this objective. Presidents enjoy the bully pulpit, and therefore could use their command of the nation’s attention to “out” any Congressman that attaches any type of pork onto a more important (and unrelated) bill he is waiting for Congress to pass. By threatening to unfavorably shine the spotlight on an elected official authoring such pork, Congressmen would be disincentivized to legislate in the shadows. (As one should not cast stones from glass houses, so too should a President first cleanse his inner fiscal vessel before proclaiming himself the crusader of budgetary discipline.)

The power of a line-item veto allows the executive officer of government to interfere in the legislative process. By unilaterally removing a portion of passed legislation, he is assuming a constitutionally-mandated congressional power (or in the case of the 1996 bill, using a delegated power that was not able to be delegated in the first place). Article II, Section 3 of the Constitution mandates that the President “shall take Care that the Laws be faithfully executed”, leaving no option for changing the laws himself.

An alternative to presidential legislative interference is impoundment—a refusal to implement a congressionally-appropriated use of federal funds. This power was enjoyed by Presidents of this nation for nearly two centuries, until Congress passed a bill in 1974 to regulate and constrain this executive unwillingness to execute law.

Impoundment is more preferable to a line-item veto, since it only involves the President refusing to discharge the duties of his office. By thus avoiding the incestuous marriage of legislative and executive power, Congress would retain its full authority over the purse strings. If the President’s impoundment of a certain bill was something enough Congressmen strongly opposed, impeachment proceedings could be threatened and pursued for neglect of duty. Short of that, and if the axed spending was something citizens really wanted, then the President would be the one to lose favor—to say nothing of the next election.

Regardless of whether or not impoundment is reintroduced, a line-item veto is not the answer. The responsibility for managing and approving budgets lies with Congress, and the deferral to an executive’s selective veto pen is simply an abdication of responsibility. If the American people truly want fiscal responsibility, then they must turn up the heat on their so-called representatives, rather than allowing one individual to modify passed legislation as he sees fit.

5 Responses to “Legislating with a Line-Item Veto”

  1. Josh Williams
    July 27, 2009 at 6:56 pm #

    …….therefore could use their command of the nation’s attention to “out” any Congressman that attaches any type of pork…….By threatening to unfavorably shine the spotlight on an elected official authoring such pork, Congressmen would be disincentivized to legislate in the shadows…….

    Well, if the President makes a habit of publicly shaming them, they’ll just refuse to fund his administration. This is a hole the president can’t easily dig his way out of. Frankly, the president needs to have good will of congress; that’s the way things should be.

    Threatening to veto makes it hard enough to pass personal interest legislation. If congresspersons are able to tack this stuff onto major policy bills, then the president is derelecting his duty.

    Frankly I feel that impoundment is just too powerful. The President still has a limited ability to do this by stalling policies with bureaucratic handwavery. At least he can’t ignore the rule of law with impunity. It strikes me as uncharacteristic, that you would advocate this kind of arbitrary executive power, Connor. Wouldn’t you reject this sort of thing on principle?

    One thing I can say about Congress, like any sociopath, they are quick to respond collectively if they believe there is a collective threat. (Remember how easy it was for G.W.B. to pass all of his draconian policies in the wake of 9/11.)

    Sociopaths are pathologically insecure. Public shame is probably the thing they fear (and also anticipate) the most. Appealing to their insecurity influences them much more than inflaming it.

  2. Connor
    July 27, 2009 at 9:19 pm #

    It strikes me as uncharacteristic, that you would advocate this kind of arbitrary executive power, Connor.

    That’s just it, though—it’s not any power he doesn’t already have. He (the President) is charged with executing laws that are passed. This “power” (impoundment) is simply the refusal to exeucte a law. In essence, it is civil disobedience implemented when the President thinks that something is wrong. I am all for civil disobedience as it relates to opposing un-constitutional measures.

  3. Josh Williams
    July 27, 2009 at 10:51 pm #

    Thanks. That makes sense.

    I expect power to be used in the interests of the powerful first. I can’t think of a strong enough check on this one.

  4. rachel
    July 28, 2009 at 8:50 am #

    I love that imagery…..”a Jabba-the-Hut-like blob of legislative goo.” It seems like that’s all we’ve been getting lately.

    Unfortunately, though I agree with Connor’s assessment of the situation and the solutions he has laid out (congress properly focusing legislation, the principle of impoundment, presidential outing of porky congressmen, and impeachment of a president neglecting his duty), I find myself shaking my head in hopelessness.

    There’s too much of an “I’ll-scratch-your-back-you-scratch-mine” mentality (combination) that has a strong hold in our government. In order for the things Connor has proposed to work, there has to be a higher moral code on both sides. Business as usual would have to cease being about power retention. In addition, there would have to be a constituency who was actually knowledgable about what was going on and actually cared so that when the pork-promoting congressmen were “outed,” the people would remove them or pressure them to do the right thing.

    Perhaps we can make a note of these things, and implement them after we have solved the problem of lack of character and morality in the Congress and the Presidency and ultimately, in the people who elect them.

  5. Ethan
    July 28, 2009 at 2:30 pm #

    I heartily agree that line-item veto is 100% the wrong direction. Congress should be limited to single-issue legislating. Rachel got the problem right in her comment though: the current members of Congress won’t voluntarily abide by that. And there is no way they will pass a law that limits them like that. If only there was another legislature, the sole responsibility of which was to pass laws to regulate the operation of Congress…

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