line item veto

Issue in Brief

What’s up?

Once again, some lawmakers (led by Senator John McCain of Arizona) are calling for a line item veto for the president to help Congress police its spending habits.

Federal spending has been at an all time high in the last decade, and complaints about a ballooning deficit can be heard from left and right. With a declining economy and unemployment nearing double digits, the government is likely to have a hard time generating enough revenues for everything it wants/needs to pay for without going into even more debt: massive economic stimulus and bailout plans, healthcare, and two on-going wars. Proponents of the line item veto say it will help cut wasteful (pork barrel) spending and special interest projects from budget bills. However, many members of Congress oppose the law because it threatens to expand executive power.

What is a line item veto anyway?

The Constitution gives the president the power to "veto" bills passed in Congress - nixing them from being passed unless Congress votes in turn - with a 2/3rds majority - to overide the veto. But the president only has the power to ding an entire bill - if there are parts of the bill he doesn't like, he's out of luck - they're either being passed with the entire bill or he has to nix the whole bill to keep them from passing. Line item veto power would change that, giving the president the ability to okay a bill while stopping parts or "lines" in the bill.

Line items old and new

This is not the first time there has been a push for a line item veto. Various presidents from Andrew Jackson to Ronald Reagan have grasped at this power, often with substantial support from members of their own party in Congress. Democrat Bill Clinton was actually given this power (over the objections of many members of his own party) by the Congressional Republicans in 1996 but in 1998, the Supreme Court declared it unconstitutional, saying the constitution only gives the president the power to veto bills, not edit them, which is what a line item veto essentially lets him do. In 2006, the House revived the line item veto, at the urgingof President George W. Bush. He proposed a modified version of the bill to makeit constitutional as described by the Court. Legislative Line Item Veto Act of2006 passed the House by a wide margin but failed to get enough support in theSenate.

The currently proposed version of the law similar to the 2006 version in that it gets around the Supreme Court's decision by keeping Congress's role in approving the final version of a bill - so instead of signing a bill or vetoing it, the president would snip out the offending parts and send it back to Congress for final approval.

Bring it back!

Supporters of the line item veto argue that congressional spending must be curbed immediately. Special interest projects are driving the huge budget growth of the past few congressional terms. Congressmembers cannot be trusted to trim the fat from the budget themselves, but the president can do so without the pressure to bring money back to a specific district. Furthermore, supporters cite the existence of the line item veto for 43 of the states as proof of its place in a successful budget process. (Dirkson) Now that the line item veto sends all the president's changes back to Congress for approval by a majority vote, the supporters believe the law to be fully constitutional.

Listen to the courts!

Opponents of the new line item veto legislation point to the Supreme Court decision from 1998. They claim that the new bill still violates the concept of separation of powers and grants the executive branch far too much power in the law making process. The Constitution only allows the president the ability to sign or veto a law, not edit the intent. Also, skeptics do not view the president as an impartial judge of what is wasteful spending and what is beneficial. They fear not only constitutional violations but also the approval of pork only the president favors - at best - and use of the line item veto as a threat to bully lawmakers.

Wrong issue!

Others in the middle of the road think that the line item veto is just a distraction. (One estimate from the Congressional Budget Office puts the savings of the line item veto at $1 - $2 billion a year.) The real problems are the budget process, the influence of lobbyists, the lack of fiscal restraint by Congress and - some say - campaign finance laws (see our lobby and earmark reform brief). This law will not make Congress curb its spending habits; only the Congressional representatives can do that, either willingly or simply to avoid losing reelection hopes. Until those changes are made, the line item veto law won't have any impact on the growth of the budget.

Where things stand now

A version of the line item veto law was introduced in each chamber in March 2009. No further action has yet been taken.  

More information

  • 1998 Supreme Court ruling - Washington Post

  • House approves modified version of line item veto - Los Angeles Times

  • Bush proposes line item veto - New York Times

  • 1992 CBO testimony saying a line-item veto would have little effect in curbing spending. 2006 CBO testimony is less strongly worded, but also doubts if a line-item veto would help cut wasteful spending much.

  • A 1992 GAO report (pdf) estimates that a line item veto would shave about 2% off of discretionary spending.

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