A Good Line-Item Veto

Friday, March 10, 2006

WE HAVE repeatedly opposed the idea of a line-item veto. So it may seem inconsistent to warmly endorse -- as we do -- President Bush's proposal this week for what he terms the Legislative Line Item Veto Act of 2006. In fact, though, Mr. Bush is embracing a responsible alternative to the line-item veto, which the Supreme Court struck down in 1998. His bill raises none of the constitutional problems of the earlier law; nor does it raise the same concerns about concentrating power in presidential hands. While it will do much less than is often pretended to diminish the deficit, it would be a useful open-government tool to combat the gross proliferation of congressional earmarks.

The original line-item veto allowed the president to break spending bills apart, accepting some pieces and vetoing others; his veto then would have to be overridden by a two-thirds vote in both houses of Congress. This posed serious -- and ultimately fatal -- constitutional problems, because Congress alone has the power to write laws. It also threatened to shift considerable power from Congress to the presidency, though this latter concern did not materialize during the law's brief life.

Mr. Bush's idea does not so alter the checks and balances between the legislative and executive branches. Under his proposal, the president could not nix part of a spending bill; he could, however, temporarily freeze a spending item and request that Congress rescind it. Congress would be obliged to act on such requests quickly, without amendment and with no possibility of filibuster. If a majority of both houses of Congress stood by the provision, the president's action would have no consequence. If, on the other hand, the spending were a single member's pet project -- a bridge in Alaska, say -- Congress as a whole might not stand by it. The bill, in other words, gives the president not a line-item veto but a device for forcing individual votes on line items buried within larger spending packages.

This makes sense. It might not do much to control the budget, both because pork makes up a small component of the deficit and because the president may be as reluctant to offend congressional appropriations barons as are other legislators. But the bill could spotlight earmarks and the corruption that can come with them. Mr. Bush is, to put it mildly, an imperfect champion of any measure to discipline out-of-control spending; he hasn't once used the veto he already has, while signing into law plenty of pork-filled spending bills. Yet the messenger's flaws should not prejudice the message. This bill deserves consideration on its very significant merits.

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