Clinton Signs Law For Line-Item Veto
By John F. Harris
President Clinton yesterday signed into law the "line-item veto," a historic transfer of power from Congress to the White House that he said will give presidents a potent weapon against "special-interest boondoggles, tax loopholes and pure pork."
Starting in January and continuing for eight years, Clinton or his successors will be able to use a power that presidents have yearned for since the 19th century. Instead of having to sign or veto an appropriations bill in full, a president can sign the bill but selectively strike spending to which he objects. Opponents of the line-item veto say it is an extraordinary departure from the Constitution's separation of powers doctrine, and a court challenge is already underway.
If it survives the constitutional challenge, the line-item veto will give the president a markedly enhanced role in the elaborate ritual of favors, threats and mutual back-scratching that makes up the annual appropriations process. But how that new power will actually affect federal spending is a source of disagreement.
Clinton hailed the passage of the line-item veto a plank in the House Republicans' "Contract With America" as a model of bipartisan cooperation, and called the new authority something that will "help us to cut waste and to balance the budget."
But a range of legislators and budget scholars supporters and opponents of the measure alike said that the line-item veto won't play a significant role in deficit reduction.
This is because the vast majority of federal spending is for existing entitlement programs, such as Social Security or the Medicare health program for the elderly, interest on the debt, and other items that are off limits to the new veto power Con gress handed over to the presidency. These areas are the major engines of federal spending.
The line-item veto targets discretionary spending, which, including defense, is about 34 percent of the budget. Excepting military spending, the figure is 17.5 percent, or about $275 billion a year. These percentages, near their lowest levels in recent decades, are forecast to continue falling even without the line-item veto.
It is this diminishing chunk of the budget that contains what critics call pork spending, a public works project in a powerful lawmaker's district, for instance, or a research grant sought by a favored special interest.
Many budget experts expect presidents to use their line-item power sparingly. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), one of the primary backers of the line-item veto, acknowledged that by itself the power wouldn't sharply curb total spending. "I don't think it's nirvana," he said. But he said that Congress would never have the credibility with the public to curb entitlement spending until it can demonstrate that "we are willing to clean up our own act."
"This is a very large transfer of authority," McCain said. "It is an acknowledgment that Congress is incapable institutionally of stopping pork-barrel spending."
In congressional debate, this argument prevailed over those who said legislators were foolish to surrender a key element of their power of the purse to the executive branch. Sen. Robert C. Byrd (D-W.Va.), whose success at steering federal projects to his state has been branded as pork-barrel spending by critics, last month told senators the line-item veto was a "malformed monstrosity" and that it should really be called the "President-Always-Wins Bill," because of the leverage Congress was giving away.
The National Treasury Employees Union, a group that filed suit in U.S. District Court here yesterday to overturn the line-item veto, said Congress can't give that leverage away even if it wants to. The group, which fears that politically minded presidents might target federal salaries, said in its complaint that the measure upsets "the Constitution's carefully crafted scheme of checks and balances."
But the experiment that Clinton and Congress are embarked upon the new authority that Clinton signed yesterday is to run through 2004 is something shy of the full line-item authority for which presidents from Ulysses S. Grant to Ronald Reagan campaigned. That would have required a constitutional amendment, making it a far more powerful instrument.
Since Congress gave away its power by a law and not by Constitution, it can in theory rewrite future appropriations bills to say that it doesn't want the line-item provision to apply to a particular bill. This would leave a president the same choice he has now: sign the bill with its offending parts or veto the whole thing. As a practical matter, according to lawmakers, attempts to circumvent the line-item veto would likely fail because of procedural challenges. For better or worse, Congress is probably struck with the line-item measure for most spending and tax bills.
Under the new law, a president can sign a bill but strike items in it dealing with particular spending projects, tax breaks affecting fewer than 100 people, and expansions of entitlement programs. If Congress is intent on passing a vetoed item, it would have to pass the measure again as a separate bill, preferably with two-thirds support to override a second presidential veto.
Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-N.Y.) said yesterday he thinks the line-item veto is unconstitutional; he is part of a group of senators planning a court challenge. The line-item veto, he said, threatens to undermine the legislative process because lawmakers often strike carefully crafted bargains involving tax and spending proposals. The traditional legislative ethic that "nothing is agreed to until everything is agreed to," he said, would be destroyed by a presidential line-item veto.
Clinton, however, argued that 43 states have some form of a line-item veto and use it responsibly, and only those projects that could never pass on their own will be affected. The line-item veto, he said "will throw a spotlight of public scrutiny onto the darkest corners of the federal budget."
© Copyright 1996 The Washington Post Company