October 21, 2007

Will: No Line-Item Veto

George Will rides to Rudy Giuliani's defense on the line-item veto issue, and in fact rides so hard he passes Rudy at full gallop. Giuliani favors a Constitutional amendment to grant the President the power to strike individual spending items from legislation, but Will argues against pursuing it at all:

Forty-three governors have, and most presidents have coveted, the power to have something other than an all-or-nothing choice when presented with appropriations bills. This did not matter in 1789, when the only appropriations bill passed by the First Congress could have been typed double-space on a single sheet of paper. But 199 years later, President Ronald Reagan displayed a 43-pound, 3,296-page bill as an argument for a line-item veto. Today's gargantuan government, its 10 thumbs into everything, routinely generates elephantine appropriations bills.

But were a president empowered to cancel provisions of legislation, what he would be doing would be indistinguishable from legislating. He would be making, rather than executing, laws, and the separation of powers would be violated.

Furthermore, when presidents truncated bills by removing items, they often would vitiate the will of Congress. Frequently, congressional majorities could not have been cobbled together for bills if they had not included some provisions that presidents later removed.

The line-item veto expresses liberalism's faith in top-down government and the watery Caesarism that has produced today's inflated presidency. Liberalism assumes that executive branch experts, free from parochial constituencies, know, as Congress does not, what is good for the nation "as a whole." This is contrary to the public philosophy of James Madison's "extensive" republic with its many regions and myriad interests.

Unfortunately, the inflated presidency of today has been matched by the inflated legislature and an even more inflated judiciary. What Will decries as "watery Caesarism" in the Presidency has grown to match the other two branches of government. The legislature, abusing the Interstate Commerce clause of the Constitution, has created a radically changed notion of federal government from that conceived by Madison. The judiciary has remade itself into a superlegislature, imposing laws by fiat. The Presidency has grown in tandem and reaction to both as federal government multiplied exponentially into a controlling behemoth that has made hash of the federalist principles on which Madison relied in the Constitution.

The line-item veto advocates want the tool in place to reverse these trends, at least in the legislature. They want an end to the backscratching that takes place in Congresses controlled by either party which results in billions of dollars going to cronies and political supporters. Voters want an end to Stevensian Bridges to Nowhere, Rangelian Monuments to Me, and Hippie Museums For Rich Nostalgists. They see the Presidency as a potential and specific check to an abuse of power that has begun its own exponential growth cycle.

However, Will does have the history and the likely outcome correct. Giuliani fought the Clinton administration because the line-item veto was both unconstitutional and because Clinton focused its use on New York. That points to one major flaw in the line-item veto, which is that it adds a second branch as a player in pork. Most advocates believe that presidents would save money by eliminating pork, and they might save some money with the LIV. More likely, they would learn to use it as leverage against Congress to get their own pet projects through -- and the cost of legislation would rise, not fall, as a result. They could target their political opponents with crystal-clear accuracy and warp the balance of power even further.

Finally, the LIV would have one other deleterious effect: it would take Congress off the hook for its own pork-barrel politics. It would shift fiscal responsibility to the White House, and Congress would have a field day with its pork projects. If they passed, well, it would be the President's fault for leaving them in the budget!

The true solution to ending pork-barrel politics is to hold the porkers responsible for their own actions and to reduce the reach of the federal government to disable the entree that porkers have in spending the money in the first place. We need to reverse the trends of the last several decades and bring all three branches of the federal government back in line with their Constitutional predicates. Watery Caesarism doesn't just afflict the White House, and the effort for the people begins in the people's branch of government.


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Comments (19)

Posted by marinetbryant | October 21, 2007 10:42 AM

I would like to see two amendments. One would be one bill, one vote. No amendments and no chicanery. If it's worthy as an amendment to a bill it is worthy of it's own status as a bill. Another, which has been tried, is a term limit or at least a way to recall Congressmen.


Posted by The Yell | October 21, 2007 11:02 AM

Will is addicted to his own top-down liberalism: that Madison and other 18th century colonials knew better than the 20th century residents of California what the ideal form of government ought to be. He has condemned the recall, the intitiative and the referendum as contrary to the classical divide of powers. Which they are, and yet are none the less necessary.

A spending process by which recipients are not directly named and by which funds are disbursed by amendment in conference committee rather than open debate in the chamber, begs for SOMEBODY to exercise the traditional legislative function, since Congress won't.

Posted by RD | October 21, 2007 11:32 AM

Alrighty then, let's insist that they put all pork in a bill labeled pork and list the projects and costs with their sponsors by states. This would work...heh, heh, heh. Seriously, voters need to get serious about the ways of their legislators and insist upon accountability.

Posted by syn | October 21, 2007 12:22 PM

Porkers won't stop because each pig believes they're THE most important pig in the trough and will vote for those porkers who will feed their ego-centric snouts.

Johnson's legacy has produced a Great Society of squelling piggetry fatten by a false sense of self-worth.

Posted by RD | October 21, 2007 12:41 PM

While I don't generally read George Will I think he is right on this one. Ideas that sound great usually have some unintended consequences and in this case the consequences that he lists persuade me that I need to give serious thought to my position on the line item veto. Dang!

Posted by Bill | October 21, 2007 12:54 PM

During this year's budget cycle, Ill. Gov. Ron "Blago" Blagovejich used his line-item veto in exactly the way Ed described, as a laser-like attack on his political enemies.

Posted by RBMN | October 21, 2007 1:02 PM

Will has it right. If the voters don't care enough to hold Congress accountable, then nothing else is going to save us from political corruption in Washington. Certainly not giving more power to President Rodham.

Posted by Fritz | October 21, 2007 1:04 PM

While the theory of the line item veto sounds seductive, it is a direct affront to our system of checks and balances. By giving the executive the line item veto, the congress would be abdicating its powers. So if you favor the line item veto, you favor an imperial presidency, something the founders of this country tried very hard to avoid.

Posted by Angry Dumbo | October 21, 2007 4:00 PM

Shine a light on the cockroaches.

A line item veto would be most conspicuous, something our beloved earmarking porkers in congress are not.

Posted by flenser | October 21, 2007 4:41 PM

You would think that the fact that Giuliani opposed the line-item veto because it would have cost New York pork would be a major blow against his fiscal conservative credentials. And it's not as if this was an isolated incident. He frequently opposed efforts by the GOP Congress to cut spending because he wanted the money.

Posted by flenser | October 21, 2007 5:40 PM

Frequently, congressional majorities could not have been cobbled together for bills if they had not included some provisions that presidents later removed.

I think Will intends this as an argument against the line-item, but to me it works the other way.

Think of the line-item veto as forcing Congress to defend each seperate item in a bill seprarately. At present they stuff many different things into one bill as a way of circumventing the veto process.

Posted by burt | October 21, 2007 6:05 PM

"But were a president empowered to cancel provisions of legislation, what he would be doing would be indistinguishable from legislating." Horse feathers. Congress could over ride a line item veto just as it can any other veto.

"Furthermore, when presidents truncated bills by removing items, they often would vitiate the will of Congress." Baloney. This is also true of any veto.

All in all there is no substance to this argument.

Posted by Ray in Mpls | October 21, 2007 6:12 PM

"So if you favor the line item veto, you favor an imperial presidency, something the founders of this country tried very hard to avoid."

I don't think that's true. An "imperial" president would just "line item veto" the opposing members of Congress themselves (think imprisonment) and wouldn't bother with bills and laws.

Also, it's not like line item vetoes are unknown and their effect on the citizens impossible to determine (we have no "Imperial Governors" for example). The Governor state of Minnesota has line item veto powers and that has yet to cause much problems for the citizens of the state, although I'm sure some members of our Legislature would beg to differ with me about that.

As for the actual President having line-item veto power, I'm kinda undecided as to my support and/or opposition. In some ways, it would be a good idea as it would stop Congress from loading a bill with amendments, especially pork.

But on the other hand, it allows the President to change the bills Congress has already approved and that itself is a violation of the separation of power, as Will points out..

At the same time, it may make Congress and the President more accountable to the citizens on America. For example, Congress couldn't say that the President vetoed an entire bill because he objected to just a small portion of it if the President could actually veto the parts he doesn't like. The President also couldn't accuse Congress of forcing him to accept a bill he opposes simply because it contains something he thinks is vital.

I guess I fell that it's idea that, while good, won't work because of how our federal government is structured. Perhaps the Founding Fathers knew what they were doing when they insisted that a President has to approve or deny a bill in it's entirety and not be able to pick and choose which parts of the bills he thinks are necessary. They were wise people, let's follow that wisdom.

Posted by Count to 10 | October 21, 2007 7:02 PM

Someone could look it up, but I think what the constitution has to say about congress's role in spending is that there will be none without the approval of congress. To me, that implies that it is the job of congress to approve or deny spending requests made by the President, not to come up with spending plans of their own.
I would actually prefer that congress only be able to pass or deny budgets set forth by the office of the President, collectively or item by item, rather than congress have the ability to originate spending, and then lump it all together in a take-it -or-leave-it deal for the President to sign. If that is bothersome, then have congress only be able to pass original spending with a two-thirds majority, as if overriding a veto.

Posted by chuck_1776 | October 21, 2007 7:48 PM

Back in the 70's there was a law passed (I think it was this one: "Congressional Budget and Impoundment Control Act of 1974" but I could be wrong). This law made it so that the President could no longer refuse to spend money allocated by Congress.

To me, THAT is unconstitutional.

Congress may allocate funds, but they shouldn't be able to force the executive to spend them.

Thus, pre-BICA, a president had de-facto line item veto -- he'd simply direct his administration not to spend the funds allocated for . Perhads to solution to this problem is to challenge BICA?

Posted by SWLiP | October 21, 2007 11:56 PM

The legislature, abusing the Interstate Commerce clause of the Constitution, has created a radically changed notion of federal government from that conceived by Madison.

Ed, we might just make an ardent federalist out of you, yet! I hope that this means that you have seen the light on Justice Thomas' dissent in the medical marijuana case.


Posted by Qwinn | October 22, 2007 12:41 AM

Will's argument, that a President with the line item veto is essentially legislating, is, as is usually the case with Will, a horrible terrible horrible argument. It's not in the least bit persuasive. The President can't allow anything to pass that Congress didn't send him. He can't actually -write- anything besides his signature. Crossing something out isn't the same as writing something. Therefore, he's not writing legislation, and to claim such is downright silly.

Ed's argument, on the other hand, that it would be abused as a weapon specifically against political enemies is quite persuasive, and I'm going to have to think about that one a while.


Posted by dad29 | October 22, 2007 7:11 AM

Wisconsin has the line-item veto and it has been seriously abused by both the current Governor (Doyle) and his predecessor (Thompson)--bi-partisan abuse.

I agree with Will that the "Savior-Executive" model is fatuous.

Posted by LarryD | October 22, 2007 9:57 AM

Restore the Impoundment Power.

Personally, I want it restored by Constitutional Amendment, making it an enumerated power of the Executive, Congress has already shown it can take it away if it's just statutory.

It's a power that has a long history (up to 1974), and long experience.

Oh, and Term Limits for Congress, too.

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