Presidential item veto: controversial, perhaps flawed

Ronald Reagan isn't the only one lured by the line-item veto. Andrew Jackson, John Tyler, Ulysses S. Grant, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and other American presidents have wanted some form of it. The Confederate States in 1861 adopted it. And 43 states of the Union today have given it to their governors.

The item veto enables a chief executive to pick and choose what items of a spending bill to approve without vetoing an entire bill.

President Reagan is again pushing for such a reform, although chances for passage of it by the Congress remain dim. In his recent State of the Union message, the President told lawmakers: ``Give me the authority to veto waste, and I'll take the responsibility, I'll take the heat.''

Controversy surrounds the proposal, however. Supporters say it would keep down federal deficits. Critics contend it would cede undue authority to the executive branch.

Presidents already have veto power, of course. The Founding Fathers gave the president a limited veto to approve or reject a bill in its entirety. Congress can override the veto by a two-thirds majority of both the Senate and the House of Representatives.

This executive veto was used infrequently in the early part of the 19th century. The first 16 presidents chalked up fewer than 60 vetoes among them. In modern times the veto has been employed more often. But even presidents who exercise the power most heavily have vetoed only a small percentage of the bills sent to them, according to the American Enterprise Institute.

Dwight Eisenhower vetoed 73 out of some 3,700 bills (2 percent). Lyndon Johnson vetoed 16 out of almost 2,000 bills (less than 1 percent); Richard Nixon 24 out of 1,700 (1.4 percent); and Gerald Ford 43 out of roughly 900 (4.7 percent).

Ronald Reagan has vetoed 45 bills, including pocket vetoes, but of these only a minuscule number have been appropriations bills.

The item veto would not enable the president to veto every single item in the federal budget. But it would break up the 13 appropriations bills and the annual continuing budget resolution into component parts, giving the president greater discretion for his veto.

Sen. Mack Mattingly (R) of Georgia, who unsuccessfully sought Senate passage of the measure last year, argues that the item veto would make it possible to control ``logrolling.'' Legislators have a habit of adding public works and other special projects to appropriations bills for their own districts, expecting that a president will not veto a multibillion-dollar bill simply to curb a few million dollars of waste.

Also, says Senator Mattingly, the government has grown so huge and budget bills are so complex that, by contrast with earlier decades, the president does not receive the money bills until late in the year when there is little time to return them for reworking.

``The president has little option to veto,'' Mattingly says. The senator will pursue the item-veto legislation (S. 43) this year whatever happens to Gramm-Rudman. ``My feeling has not dampened any,'' he told the Monitor.

Critics counter that a president has his own pet projects and could make members of Congress hostage to political blackmail. The item veto, they argue, would simply bias the legislative process more heavily in favor of the president's favorite projects and those of his congressional colleagues.

Sen. Mark O. Hatfield (R) of Oregon says that a president would not be able to pick and choose which pork-barrel projects to cut out, as generally believed. ``To turn down funds for one project, a president would have to reject all activities financed out of the same account,'' he has written. ``For example, it would be necessary to strike funds for all water projects to kill just one.'' As chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, Senator Hatfield last year was instrumental in blocking the item-veto legislation. Aides say he can be expected to oppose the measure this year as well.

What most concerns critics is that the item veto would further alter the balance of power in favor of the executive branch. ``The Congress has already yielded considerable power, including the Gramm-Rudman legislation,'' says presidential scholar Thomas J. Cronin. ``Why should Congress duck that responsibility? The answer is not to give responsibility away but to assume it themselves. The item veto would weaken an already weakened branch.''

The President already has an array of powers, says Dr. Cronin. He can propose a budget without a deficit. He has general veto power. He can defer spending of funds until the end of a fiscal year.

And, under the 1974 Impoundment Act, he has the power of recision -- that is, he can send back a section of a measure he does not want and, if 50 percent of both houses support him, he need not spend the funds.

Some question the constitutionality of the Mattingly proposal. Under the Constitution, a bill becomes law when passed by both houses of Congress. If an appropriations bill is chopped up into component sections after the House-Senate conference, can it be said that each house has passed each component?

``I'm uncomfortable with that,'' comments Louis Fisher of the Congressional Research Service. ``It doesn't fit Article I of the legislative process.''

By contrast with the federal process of appropriating lump sums of money for broad categories, states actually appropriate funds for specific items.

``So the structure of appropriation bills is radically different in the states,'' says Fisher. ``The federal bills have no `items.' ''

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