An Unconstitutional Gimmick

The House of Representatives on June 22 approved legislation giving the president line-item veto authority, a move considered both constitutionally questionable and unlikely to reign in special-interest spending. While Congress has identified an important problem — appropriations bills often littered with thousands of individual earmarks — their “solution” resorts to legislative gimmicks instead of tackling the problem directly.

Since conservatives took control in 2001, federal spending has ballooned 42%, an increase of over $830 billion a year, reflecting the budgets that President Bush has submitted to Congress. During that time, the president has not vetoed a single piece of legislation, using the veto less than any president in the past 175 years.

Yet while the proposed line-item authority would give a big new stick to the executive branch, it would do little to bring fiscal sanity back to the appropriations process and might actually have the opposite effect of encouraging these special-interest handouts. Conservative columnist George Will observes that the president may simply use the authority as a form of legislative horse-trading, suggesting that the administration could “buy legislators’ support on other large matters in exchange for not vetoing the legislators’ favorite small items.”

Both the Congressional Budget Office and the Congressional Research Service have reached similar conclusions. Indeed, it seems the president’s version of the line-item veto is more about transferring power to the executive branch than actually reigning in federal spending.

That power transfer has already once been found unconstitutional by the Supreme Court. The majority decided that “the president’s role in the legislative process can be altered only through the cumbersome process of amending the Constitution,” and there is no reason to believe that this attempt will be met any more favorably. In fact, the House bill actually gives the executive branch more power than the previous act, allowing the president up to 45 days to exercise the authority (instead of the previous act’s five) and 90 days to withhold funds even after Congress has overridden his veto.

If Congress really wants to get a handle on spending, it should reform the earmarking process, instead of resorting to legislative gimmicks. The president could also do the unthinkable — bring out the old-fashioned veto stamp for the first time in five years.

To learn more about the president’s proposed line-item veto, also see:

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