Sanity Injection

Injecting a dose of sanity into your day’s news and current events.

What is the line-item veto and should President Obama have it?

Posted by sanityinjection on March 4, 2009

It is a truism in Washington that the same issues tend to come up year after year. In that vein, it’s not surprising that there is a new attempt brewing in Congress to give the President the line-item veto.

Most readers know that the President has the ability to veto bills passed by Congress. However, this power becomes almost useless when it comes to the budget. No President wants to veto an entire huge budget bill, much of which he may agree with, over a number of things in it that he disagrees with. This gave rise to the idea of the “line-item veto”, which would give the President the ability to strike out individual items in the budget instead of having to veto the whole bill. As with a regular veto, Congress could still attempt to restore those items  individually or collectively with a vote or votes to override the President’s veto.

Although a number of state governors have this power with regard to their own state budgets, the idea of applying it on the federal level has been controversial. Congress has usually been opposed to the idea on the grounds that it violates the separation of powers which vests the budgetary power with the legislature, while Presidents, unsurprisingly, have generally been in favor of it. Fiscal conservatives have backed the idea because they feel it will allow a President to cut out some of the waste and pork that Congress pads the budget with.

Finally, after the Republicans took over Congress in 1994, they succeeded in passing a law to give the President (Democrat Bill Clinton at the time) the line-item veto in 1996. Clinton was able to use this power for two years, and it is not a coincidence that the combination of a Republican Congress and a President with a line-item veto resulted in significant deficit reductions. Unfortunately, in 1998 the Supreme Court found the line-item veto law to be unconstitutional, agreeing that it violates the separation of powers.

To get around this problem, the new line-item veto proposal, sponsored by Congressman Paul Ryan (R) and Senators John McCain (R) and Russ Feingold (D), limits the line-item veto power so that the President can only strip out earmarks, not entire budget appropriations.

Passage of this legislation would put pressure on President Obama to live up to his rhetoric on fiscal discipline. But it would also give him a powerful tool to cut out waste and pork such as some of the nonsense in the current budget bill.

The fact that this is a bipartisan effort, and that Republicans want to give this power to a Democrat President, are clues that this is a real attempt at reform and not political game-playing.  I completely support this legislation and hope it passes. It is clear that Congress, regardless of which party is in charge, cannot hold the line on spending. Thus if we are going to have any fiscal responsibility we are going to have to empower our President to implement it.


7 Responses to “What is the line-item veto and should President Obama have it?”

  1. The line-item veto is unconstitutional, as it allows the President to alter the language of legislation; and the newly altered legislation is not even voted on by Congress before it becomes law.

  2. Steve – It doesn’t allow the President to write his own language, merely strike out language. And the new proposed version would limit that to earmarks. Also, your understanding of the veto process is a little oversimplified. The sections with vetos would not simply “become law” without the opportunity for Congress to vote. The President sends a veto message back to Congress, which can then schedule votes to override the President’s vetos before the appropriations bill would become effective. (Most legislation does not take effect on the date the President signs it, but has an effective date specified in the bill itself.)

  3. Jess Chapman said

    This was the same topic of the first column I ever wrote – one day before you did. And I took the same position. We must have a psychic bond, San.

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