The Line-Item Veto Versus the Constitution

ONE thing that Bill Clinton and Bob Dole have in common is a desire to enhance the office of the presidency. One of them sits there now, and both of them want to sit there for the next four years. This mutuality of interest led them to make common cause to upset the delicate balance the Constitution provides between the executive and legislative branches of government.

The instrument of their mischief is the line-item veto, a misbegotten piece of legislation that empowers the president to veto parts of an appropriation bill while allowing the rest of the bill to become law. As things stood, the president had to sign or veto a bill in its entirety. It would have taken a constitutional amendment to make a clean change in this, but Clinton and Dole are relying on a convoluted procedural gimmick that allows the president to pick and choose.

Supporters of this idea presented it as a way for the president to curb what they see as the congressional tendency to spend money on wasteful projects. Some presidents might actually do that. But it will more likely be used as a bargaining chip in executive-legislative relations.

Lawmakers might have thought they were voting for the line-item veto in the name of economy and good government, but what they did was take a large step toward diminishing their own role. They produced a massive shift of power from Congress to the president.

It involves a great deal more than doing away with pork-barrel politics in Congress. President Nixon invented the technique of "impounding" appropriations for programs he did not like, such as municipal water and sewer projects. Congress responded by requiring congressional approval before impoundments could be effective. President Reagan asked repeatedly for the line-item veto, but Democrats were afraid that he would use it to wipe out social programs.

Republicans would be well advised to worry about what Clinton might do to defense procurement. He could, for example, veto appropriations for aircraft made in Republican Texas while leaving untouched the funds for planes made in Democratic California. Republicans might have thought they were guarding against this by delaying the effective date to Jan. 1, 1997. But suppose Clinton is reelected, as he might be. (The power is also supposed to end in 2005, that is, at the end of Dole's second term if he has one. But history teaches that such transfers of power are rarely reversed.)

The line-item veto gives the president even subtler weapons. Suppose he needs votes for foreign aid to Bosnia or Haiti or some other unpopular place. He can hold money for highways and other local projects hostage. This is not economy in government. This is waste compounded. This is spending money on highways in the United States in order to get more money to spend on highways in Bosnia.

Or the president may need support for foreign military adventures. Even without the line-item veto, presidents have a lot of goodies to dispense or withhold. When Sen. Frank Church of Idaho once quoted columnist Walter Lippmann to President Johnson against the Vietnam War, Johnson is said to have snapped back that Church should "ask Lippmann the next time you want something in Idaho."

Add the line-item veto to the president's powers and a strong-willed president might well become unassailable. And that would be contrary to the public interest. Nor are these powers limited to presidential relations with Congress. They can also be used to squeeze appropriations for federal courts, thereby imperiling judicial independence, a bedrock of American liberty.

The Constitution sought to protect the powers of the respective branches of government by giving those who hold office in each branch a self-interest in preserving its independence. That protection is obliterated when the president and the leader of the Senate, who are presumed to have inherently contradictory interests, know that one of them will be president in the near future. Then their self-interest is not to protect the separation of powers, but to subvert it.

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