Thursday, February 17, 2011

The Line Item Veto Is Back

Ever since Richard Nixon lost the power to impound money (something Presidents since Jefferson had enjoyed), budget hawks have been trying to give the President a line item veto. This won’t cure our budget problems, but it can definitely help. And now, once again, it’s on the agenda, and it even has Democratic support.

A line item veto is a tool that allows the President to go through the budget and remove spending items he does not like. Right now, the President only has the power to veto entire budgets.

The line item veto comes with both pros and cons. The main reason for the line item veto is that Congress has shown that it’s not capable of crafting a sane budget. Why? Because Congresscritters are answerable only to their own constituents. Thus, their incentive is to secure as much pork as possible, no matter what happens to the national interest. This is made worse in that the critters have learned to work together to make sure they all get what they want. A line item veto would allow the President to wipe out that pork because the President is not beholden to any particular district. Though, keep in mind, Presidents face re-election too and in the modern age, they are heavily involved in Congressional elections as well.

The arguments against are more numerous, but aren’t necessarily better:

● The Constitution gives the Congress the power to make budgets, by letting the President pick and choose which line items will make it into law, the line item veto shifts the budget making power to the President (at least in part). More importantly, this tool could allow the President to become an active legislator by zeroing out funding for unfavored programs.... like ObamaCare. However, it must be stressed that the President cannot add to the budget. Also, the President already has the power to veto the whole budget to get his way.

● Budgets are the results of careful deal making and allowing the President to upset one side of those compromises would result in budget chaos. Except these are dirty deals and tend to be made against the national interest.

● Presidents could use the line item veto to punish individual Congresscritters. Yep.

● Congress could get lazy, knowing that it can vote for anything it wants and the President will take the heat for being the adult. But that's not much different than what they do now, and at least the money won’t be spent with the veto.
Neither argument is perfect, but the miserably history of Congress’s budget-making suggests that a line item veto may be an excellent idea. Moreover, this is a power held by 44 of 50 state governors without major chaos (Indiana, Nevada, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Rhode Island and Vermont are the holdouts).

Ronald Reagan first asked for the line item veto in 1986:
"Tonight I ask you to give me what forty-three governors have: Give me a line-item veto this year. Give me the authority to veto waste, and I'll take the responsibility, I'll make the cuts, I'll take the heat.”
He didn’t get it. Clinton asked in 1996, and the Republicans gave it to him. But the courts struck it down in a case brought by then-mayor Rudy Giuliani, on the grounds that allowing the President to “repeal” only parts of bills violated the Presentment Clause of the Constitution.

In 2006, Paul Ryan tried again. His bill passed the House but failed in the Senate. In 2009, John McCain in the Senate and Ryan in the House, tried again. The Democrats never let the bill get out of committee.

Now it’s back. This time it’s called the Reduce Unnecessary Spending Act, and it would let the President veto specific earmarks or other non-entitlement spending line items. To get around the constitutional question, this bill allows the President only to attack the bill’s spending levels, not the full line item, and then the changes would be returned to the Congress for a majority up or down vote. In effect, the President could zero out the funding without technically killing the program, and Congress would need to approve his decision. Is that enough to satisfy the courts? Probably.

The bill has been introduced by John McCain (R) and Tom Carper (D-Del.) in the Senate, and has 20 cosponsors, a mix of Republicans and Democrats. Obama too says he'll sign it. So it looks like it has a good chance of passing.

I, for one, hope it does. What about you?


Ed said...

I totally support the line item veto. I don't care if it can be used to kill programs or not, we need someone to have the power to stop Congress from spending us into oblivion!

ArmChairGeneral said...

Would have liked to line item veto that 'we bring them back' rider in the armor bill back when Bush was running things and congress had his .. in a sling.

AndrewPrice said...

Ed, I think there are good arguments for each side, but I also come down on the side of giving this power. I think it could do a lot to fix our budget problems. Plus, it gives Presidents the power to put their own touch on policy by killing off bad programs the Congress put in place -- though they can't add policies.

And since Congress has the chance to accept or reject this, it strikes me as a really good balance.

AndrewPrice said...

ACG, This wouldn't extend that far because it only gives the chance to eliminate spending numbers, not policy requirements, but you make a good point.

If I was going to redesign the powers of the President, one that would be good to include would be the power to not enforce policies -- though with good limits.

Ed said...

Whether it's a good balance or not, I think it's a good idea because Congress is a giant team and team projects are doomed to failure because of group dynamics. Congress is like the worlds biggest example of the failures of group dynamics.

Ed said...

Also, don't forget this very accurate quote from Scottish historian Alexander Tytler:

"A democracy cannot exist as a permanent form of government. It can only exist until a majority of voters discover that they can vote themselves largess out of the public treasury."

That's where we're at now, the public is voting themselves largess. Even though the Tea Party is a change, this is still what's going on in most districts.

Tennessee Jed said...

I support it as well. The only real problem against is the "punish particular Congress critters" issue. I agree that allowing it to go back for an up or down vote should satisfy the coursts. Of course it would also help if we had a fair an unbiased m.s.m. to keep the populace informed instead of spinning everything.

AndrewPrice said...

Ed, That's an excellent quote to remember and unfortunately, that's the problem with pure democracy -- once people realize that they can take as much as they can get, they tend to do that. It's much easier to see a short term benefit of getting some goodies than it is to understand the longer term benefits of having a healthier country and economy.

That's why I'd ideally like to see a limit put on government spending -- like a percentage cap. Then the incentives change because there is a limited pie to divide up, as compared to now when they can just pretend to increase the size of the pie by raising taxes.

AndrewPrice said...

Jed, I agree. If the media really was doing their job, a lot of these issues would go away because the public would react poorly to the guys who are abusing the system.

In terms of punishing individual members, I'm actually not that concerned about it. For one thing, as you mention, this would need to be voted up or down by the Congress -- which is the same reason I'm not worried about the President killing off programs.

Secondly, I think the politics of payback would tend to keep these things in check. For example, if Obama targeted Republican X, then the Republicans can retaliate by stripping Democrat Y or taking out some of Obama's pet projects. So I think it's a little harder to punish people than it would appear.

BUT there is definitely a danger that a President would attack the priorities of vulnerable members of the other party to try to shake up their election chances -- though again, this would invite retaliation.

LawHawkRFD said...

Andrew: I have seen the line-item veto work in states including California, and it seems to work well most of the time. I don't object in principle but I always have a problem with procedural fixes that attempt to undo the intent of the Constitution. As it is, the President can veto, and send back his suggestions for what he would like to see done. If Congress agrees, they can revise it to fit and simply send it back as a new bill. That's why God invented computers so that scribes don't have to rewrite hundreds of pages of text in order to accommodate a few specific changes. I'm suspicious of even a limited end-around that addresses just spending and leaves the remainder in place. That's the hot-button issue of today, and the intent to fix it is noble. Still, it sets a precedent for whatever Congress decides is equally important in the future.

As a longtime believer in strict Constitutionalism and the doctrine of unintended consequences, I would only be comfortable with a Constitutional Amendment to create a line-item veto. I'm not comfortable with a partial veto, or a spending veto, or whatever they might call it. It's like being a little pregnant. Or calling a tax a fee.

AndrewPrice said...

Lawhawk, I can respect that, BUT, I have a slightly different take on the constitutionality. I don't think our budget process is consistent with the Constitution in the first place. I say that, because I don't think the Founders ever envisioned a situation where Congress would pass a 2000 page budget that includes a billion line items of questionable nature.

I think the Founders assumed the budget would be much more straight forward..... "we need money for an Army, here it is.... we need money for the Treasury, here it is, etc." And I think they assumed that if the Congress wanted to create specific programs, they would pass those separately, and once they were passed, they would become part of the budget -- rather than being passed as the budget.

Instead, today, our budgets have become "legislative slush funds" with all kinds of things that I think should have had to be passed separately and thus could have been vetoed separately. So it doesn't bother me constitutionally that a President could veto individual line items because I think they should have been sent to him as individual bills.

LawHawkRFD said...

Andrew: I know what you're saying, and I'm in sympathy with it. But two wrongs don't make a right, and I see this end-around as the top of the slippery slope that liberals are so fond of talking about. Because Congress passes ridiculous bills, the President should get an extra-constitutional power and Congress should be partially relieved of the onus of its mad profligacy.

Philosophically and historically, you and I are in agreement. But I simply can't agree to the concept of creating a wide-open door for future "exceptions to the rule" which go directly against the words and intent of the Constitution and the Founders. Get the votes necessary in Congress, send it to the States, pass it as a Constitutional Amendment, and I will have no further objection. As it is, it sounds too much like "a living Constitution, which must adapt itself to the times and current issues." A "sort-of, kind-of" line item veto is that camel's large nose under the Constitutional tent.

The problem is not the Constitution's "all or nothing" rule. The problem is a Congress that is out of control and a Presidency that regularly doesn't have the courage to whip out the veto pen. Each enables the other to behave like drunken sailors on shore leave.

AndrewPrice said...

Lawhawk, That's certainly true, that the real problem is a Congress that is out of control. But I suspect that there is probably no way to fix that. So I'm willing to consider alternatives.

But I also don't see this as a real infringement on the Constitution because the only difference between this and the President just sending over a list of "please vote to delete these" items is that Congress will be forced to vote on this, whereas they could have ignored his list. To me, that doesn't rise to the level of Constitutional issue, particularly as Congress can repeal this veto with a majority vote. In other words, I see this just like any other rule change Congress could impose on itself.

And if we do end up having to do this through the constitutional amendment route, then I would like to see them put a hard limit in the Constitution based on GDP, using the prior year's numbers to avoid statistical manipulation.

LawHawkRFD said...

Andrew: I think we're going to have to agree to disagree, at least on the proposal in its present form. Not only do I have a problem with end-arounding the Constitution, but I already see a danger in the Congress being able to override his budget item veto by a mere majority as throwing salt on an open wound. First, we end-around the Constitution by creating a partial veto not contemplated by the Founders, then we figure as long as we've done that, we might also toss out the Constitutional requirement of a two-thirds vote to override a veto, partial or otherwise. An overreaching Congress combined with a know-nothing President, and a Supreme Court with just one more Kagan, Ginsberg, or Sotomayor, and the Constitution will quickly become unrecognizable. I'm using the old legal dictum of weighing the utility of the act versus the risk of harm, and I find the risk of harm to be far greater than the utility of the act.

AndrewPrice said...

Lawhawk, I can't disagree with you, but in this case, I think the harm is minimal. I am normally quite sympathetic to the slippery slope argument, but in this case, I don't think this would lead to a slippery slope that isn't already in place. I think the group of miscreants you mention would happily throw out the Constitution the first chance they get -- and the presence or absence of a line item veto won't add anything to that debate.

I also think the line item veto is far more likely to diminish the size and scope of government than it ever will be to increase the reach or power of the government.

So while I do agree with you in an ideal world, I think this is one of those moments where we should fight fire with fire.

But reasonable minds can differ! :-)

LawHawkRFD said...

Andrew: Well, Scalia, Thomas, Alito and Roberts occasionally disagree, so why shouldn't we?

In an ideal world, we wouldn't need a Constitution at all, but until that day comes, I will cling to my Bible, my gun and my Constitution. LOL

AndrewPrice said...

Lawhawk, True! And unlike liberals, we can agree to disagree without hating each other. Ain't conservatism grand?!

Writer X said...

P.S. I love the new look of the Commentarama blog!

AndrewPrice said...

Thanks Writer X! I think it spiffed the place up a good deal! Plus, I hope people find the information useful.

patti said...

i'm not entirely sure i like the idea of the line-item veto. my mind always goes to misuse, so i think i'm more in law's camp on this one.

AndrewPrice said...

Patti, It's an issue that reasonable minds can differ on, obviously. I'm not worried about abuse because it seems to have been used by governors around the country without abuse. But the potential is probably there.

CrispyRice said...

I like the line item veto and I'm not worried about abuse because it only cuts programs, it doesn't create them. Plus, Congress still gets to vote on the veto.

AndrewPrice said...

Crispy, Good points. As I say above, I'm not worried about abuse either. I can see where there would be some major struggles and game playing, but I think there are enough checks in place and I think ultimately it's good for the country to spend less no matter how it happens.

USS Ben USN (Ret) said...

"The problem is not the Constitution's "all or nothing" rule. The problem is a Congress that is out of control and a Presidency that regularly doesn't have the courage to whip out the veto pen. Each enables the other to behave like drunken sailors on shore leave."

Hey! We were never as bad as the Congress! Drunken Sailors don't steal from others (and the few that do have been known to "fall" down a ladder a few times before seeing the Captain). :^)

It would be nice if those scoundrels in congress only spend their own money like drunken Sailors rather than our money.

BTW, one thing I'd like to see is a banning of ammendments to a bill that is not related to the bill itself.
Often we have seen Reid, Pelosi, et al, attempt to get totally unrelated ammendmnents attached to the defense budget to discourage republicans from voting no for the bill, and if they don't vote for it the donks will say the GOP don't support the military.

Representatives and Senators routinely pull this crap, especially on huge bills that are hundreds or even thousands of pages long.

Would a ban on these sneaky dirty tricks be unConstitutional? I don't know enough to say for certain, but I do know our Founders never intended ammendments to be used this way.

AndrewPrice said...

Ben, A constitutional ban on putting multiple unrelated concepts into the constitution sounds good, but really doesn't work in practice. It's fairly easy to get around that, plus then the courts would be standing over all legislation and to decide it if was procedurally correct and that would become a real mess.

Good point about the drunken sailors! LOL!

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