Last week, I was in the car on the way home to campus when I heard a short blurb on the radio that made my heart skip a beat. The reporter briefly mentioned that a bill that would grant President Obama the line-item veto passed the House of Representatives. I was floored that such a bill would be passed in the first place; that it wasn’t the top news story; that I hadn’t, in fact, accidentally woken up in 1996 after all. Though there would be limits on this power and the prospect of this bill passing the Senate is comparatively slim, I think the idea of instituting a line-item veto is a HUGE and scary thing that a lot more people should be talking about than there are right now.
First, let’s back up a little bit. Do we all remember our Schoolhouse Rock on how a bill becomes a law?
The Constitution grants Congress the authority to pass laws, which the President has to sign* before they are officially enacted. The President is, of course, granted the Constitutional check/balance of the veto, which allows him/her to reject and refuse to sign a bill. Congress, of course, then has the option of overriding that veto, which requires a 2/3 majority vote in both houses. The thing about veto power is that the President must either accept or reject a bill as a whole document; if he/she wants to put a halt on a part of the proposed law, he/she needs to veto the entire thing. This makes vetoing a delicate business.
Enter the line-item veto. Many Governors enjoy this power over state legislation; Presidents have been after it for a long time. The line-item veto does exactly what its name promises, granting the Executive the power to veto individual lines of legislations. In short, it allows the Executive to throw out parts of a bill while enacting the rest. Congress gave President Clinton this power in the mid-1990s under the theory that he could use it to cut down on excessive member item funding. Members of Congress would get credit in their home districts for voting to pass it, but the total budget wouldn’t suffer for it because the President could take the heat and veto that proposed spending. Two years later, the Supreme Court struck down the line-item veto as unconstitutional on the grounds that the Constitution is very specific in granting Congress (specifically the House of Representatives) the authority to write budgets.
The current bill, which enjoys bipartisan sponsorship, was written with that prohibition in mind.
Supporters say the bill has been written to meet constitutional standards. They say that while the president can propose items for rescission, or elimination, Congress must vote on the revised spending package and then the president must sign what is in effect a new bill.
So what’s the big deal? Why my Chicken Little-style panic?
Imagine, if you will, a President less moderate than our current Professor-in-Chief. A President less willing to compromise with the opposition party. A President whose party also controls both houses of Congress–even with just 218 Representatives and 51 Senators. A President who stands for everything you oppose most deeply in your political and social beliefs. And now imagine that that President has the power to excise bits and pieces of carefully crafted laws at will. It’s true that the limitation in the most recent incarnation of the line-item veto, which applies only to budget bills, by the way, would curb the need to override that veto by a 2/3 supermajority. But controlling Congress by even a slim margin, with the right party leadership, could be disastrous.
It’s not about the current economic climate, or even the current occupant of the Oval Office. It’s about the durability of checks and balances in the institutions of the Executive and Congress. Because it is those institutions that endure much longer than the people who hold the seats. And it’s important that we ensure a proper balance of power between them. If we want the line-item veto so badly, we shouldn’t try to do this through the back door. We should propose an amendment to the Constitution. If 2/3 of both houses of Congress and 3/4 of the states are on board for such a radical shift in the balance of our federal power, then maybe – maybe! – I’ll stop sounding the alarm. But I suspect that this proposal of the line-item veto is thought of as a quick fix to a stalemate in Congress and not something for which they’ve really considered the long-term, unintended consequences.
And that is what’s so terrifying.
*That’s the way we tell the story in middle school, although it’s not strictly true. If the President signs a bill, it becomes law. If Congress is in session and the President doesn’t sign or veto the bill within ten days, it becomes law automatically. There’s also a tricky little process called the pocket veto. If session ends within 10 days and the President doesn’t act, then the bill is quietly de facto vetoed without the President having to exercise his/her veto power. The more you know!