11/10/2004

Return of the Line-Item Veto

President Bush is asking Congress to give him the line-item veto, this time in a form that will survive a review by the Supreme Court.

At a news conference after his re-election, Bush said he wanted a line-item veto that "passed constitutional muster," explaining it would help him work with lawmakers "to make sure that we're able to maintain budget discipline."
Lest anyone begin wringing their hands about this being a Bush/Rove power grab, let's establish a few things about the line-item veto...
  • It was most recently part of the "Contract With America", the agenda that Republicans ran on in their successful 1994 campaign to win a majority in Congress. Swallow that a moment - Republican congressmen campaigned to give increased power to President Clinton.
  • Clinton happily signed the bill, and used it 82 times in 1997, saving the country about $2 billion dollars in wasteful spending
  • John Kerry voted in favor of LIV when it was given to Clinton, and in a campaign press release, stated that he intended to ask Congress for LIV if he were elected.
Now, having pre-emptively debunked the notion of LIV as fascist power grab, let's get on to the meat of the issue.

Support for and opposition to LIV comes from both sides of the aisle; it passed the Senate by a comfortable 69-31 margin. There are two recurring themes in the objections to the LIV:
  1. Judicial salaries - Robert Byrd, one of the most outspoken opponents of LIV, warned that LIV might be used to selectively veto the salaries of judges whose rulings angered the president. This concern does not appear to have been borne out in practice. While Clinton was certainly not shy about unleashing IRS audits on his political enemies, he never used LIV in this way. Bush may have political "capital", but using LIV to punish a judge would be a political and public-relations disaster. It won't happen.
  2. It's unconstitutional - The Supreme Court agreed with this assessment in 1997 when it overturned LIV. It said the U.S. Constitution requires every bill to be presented to the president for complete approval or veto, and that line-item vetoes could only be authorized through a constitutional amendment.
The CATO Institute made an eloquent case for LIV in the aftermath of the Supreme Court decision...
One year's experience with the line item veto taught us all an important lesson: the line item veto works. In 1997 President Clinton used this new veto 82 times to delete unnecessary expenditures in 11 spending bills. The savings to taxpayers total nearly $2 billion over five years. True, in a $1.75 trillion annual budget, this is not a huge sum. But even by Washington standards, $2 billion is still real money -- and a whole lot of pork.

None of these vetoed projects served the national interest. Clinton wielded the veto to eliminate funding for a $600,000 solar aquatic wastewater treatment demonstration project in Vermont; a $2 million Chena River dredging project in Fairbanks, Alaska, to benefit a single tour boat operator; a $1 million corporate welfare grant to the Carter County Montana Chamber of Commerce; $900,000 for a Veterans Administration cemetery the VA says it doesn't need; $1.9 million for dredging a Mississippi lake that primarily serves yachts and pleasure boats; $500,000 for the Neabsco Creek Project in Virginia for removal of creek debris; and other such absurdities.
LIV rankles my innate distrust for authority and my reflexive opposition to the consolidation of too much authority in one place. However, more than forty of our nation's governors currently enjoy this authority with regards to state-level legislation. Prominent politicians on both sides of the aisle appear to support it; Ted Kennedy, Joe Biden, Arlen Specter, and Orrin Hatch all voted YES. It has been used responsibly in the past.

Reviving it may require a constitutional amendment, however, in light of the Supreme Court's previous ruling on the matter. This is the sort of issue that is suitable for amending the constitution; a fundamental change in the mechanisms of government. I look forward to the debate on the matter, and I look forward to seeing if the Democrats who once supported giving the authority to a president of their own party will oppose giving it to Bush.