It’s not often that Congress voluntarily surrenders power, and even less common for both parties to agree to do so.
But that’s what will happen if the latest version of legislation granting the president line-item veto authority keeps inching forward, as members of both parties endorse the idea that the current system of checks and balances isn’t working well enough at slashing spending. Critics, meanwhile, say an ineffective Congress is simply passing the buck.
In November, the chairman and ranking member of the House Budget Committee — Reps. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) and Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) — teamed up to offer the Expedited Line-Item Veto and Rescissions Act of 2011, a measure giving the White House the ability to demand a separate up-or-down vote on spending items the president especially dislikes.
The bill cleared the budget panel and is scheduled to receive a House Rules Committee hearing Tuesday, and it could reach the floor as soon as next week. One of several budget-reform proposals being advanced by Ryan, the line-item measure marks a rare case of cooperation between the Republican chairman and Van Hollen, who have spent most of the past 13 months squabbling over spending.
“Taxpayers deserve a system that is accountable, and this bipartisan legislation will provide another tool to ensure that we are good stewards of their money,” Van Hollen said when the bill was introduced. Ryan called it a “common-sense effort to reduce low-priority government spending.”
Under their plan, within 45 days of an appropriations bill becoming law, the president may send a message back to Congress outlining the spending he opposes. The House and Senate would then hold an expedited vote on the president’s proposed cuts, with no amendments allowed.
Proponents say the bill is a straightforward tool for highlighting and canceling wasteful spending. But Scott Lilly, a former House Appropriations Committee aide at the liberal Center for American Progress, said an unpopular Congress was simply looking to make excuses for its inability to get anything done.
“Because people can’t do anything, there's a scramble to switch the process,” Lilly said. “This is all about Congress passing legislation through both houses and sending it to the president and then saying, ‘Oh, my goodness, I was wrong.’ ”
If this debate sounds familiar, that’s because Congress and the president have been trying with little success to implement some version of this system for decades.
Former House speaker Newt Gingrich’s presidential campaign has occasioned frequent flashbacks to the ethics scandals and partisan warfare of the 1990s, but the line-item veto marked a rare moment of harmony between Hill Republicans and President Clinton.
The line-item veto proposal was a plank of the GOP’s “Contract With America,” and the White House soon climbed on board. Clinton signed the Line Item Veto Act in April 1996, and it immediately faced legal challenges. In June 1998, the Supreme Court threw out the bill in a 6 to 3 decision — Clinton v. City of New York — saying that the Constitution requires a bill to be completely rejected or approved by the president.
The issue has bubbled up periodically since then, with new versions emerging in each Congress but never reaching the president’s desk. The latest version avoids the 1996 bill’s constitutional problem by requiring Congress to approve any cuts, rather than allowing the White House to move unilaterally.
Although the White House has not taken a formal position on the Ryan-Van Hollen bill, an Obama administration spokeswoman noted that, “We demonstrated our strong support for expedited rescission when the president proposed the Reduce Unnecessary Spending Act of 2010.”
A trio of Democrats — Reps. Michael M. Honda (Calif.), Betty McCollum (Minn.) and Bill Pascrell Jr. (N.J.) — declared that they were wholly opposed to the bill for similar reasons.
“By privileging the Executive’s spending priorities over the deliberations of the Congress, this bill directly threatens the Constitutional design of the distribution of powers,” they wrote.