No Vetoed Veto, for Now

The US Supreme Court decided not to veto the line-item veto - at least not for now. The lawmakers challenging that brand-new presidential power had no legal standing to do so, the court said, because the veto hadn't yet been exercised and therefore no one could claim harm.

President Clinton can now, if he chooses, cancel specific appropriations earmarked for any purpose - from pork barrel to food stamps - merely by telling Congress within five days after signing a tax or spending bill. Congress could then pass a new bill to reinstate the spending - followed by another veto, which could be overturned only by a two-thirds majority of each house.

No doubt about it, advantage the president.

In April a US District Court judge, Thomas Penfield Jackson, sided firmly with those in Congress who abhor the new law. He found the line-item veto an unconstitutional delegation of Congress's sole power, under Article II of the Constitution, to craft legislation and determine spending.

The high court, however, said it was too early for that kind of reasoning. Let a party aggrieved by an actual veto first come forward.

As we wait for that to happen, let's recall the classic argument for line-item authority: to keep a legislature from larding bills with extra, usually special-interest, spending. More than 40 governors have power to simply strip such spending away. But wise governors, who must work closely with lawmakers, don't abuse the power.

With Congress and the president, the dynamic is similar - but also vastly different because of the constitutional framework governing them. It's hard to see where that framework allows Congress to give the president authority to repeal parts of enacted legislation.

There have been times, certainly, when the chief executive has been allowed enhanced, even extraconstitutional, power, during wars or other crises.

But to transfer to him the key power over spending as a matter of course? That's probably not what the Founding Fathers had in mind.

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