Wednesday, September 21, 2011

The Return of Line Item Hokum

What’s the worst budget idea ever? Ah, there’s so many to choose from – but the line item veto has got to be a finalist for the honor, at the very least. And now Senators John McCain, Tom Carper, Dan Coats, and Mark Udall are pushing the Joint Select Committee to revive it, as The Hill's Vicki Needham reports. I guess that means it’s time for a reminder: the line item veto has nothing to do with cutting spending or making spending smarter; it’s just a transfer of power from Congress to the president.

Forget, for a moment, that most federal spending doesn’t actually have “lines,” and so would be immune to the line item veto. And forget too that the courts have ruled it unconstitutional (the current version is rigged up to avoid that problem). It’s the entire concept that doesn’t make any sense. Giving the president a line item veto would be just as likely to increase government spending, including wasteful or politically motivated spending, as to decrease it. That’s because the White House could – and almost certainly would – use the veto as a bargaining chip to insist that appropriators, and Congress in general, approve the president’s various spending preferences. Which might well be generous support for projects in, say, the critical electoral college states of Florida, Ohio, and Pennsylvania, for starters. Nor would the president only use line item veto threats to secure appropriations; a smart president would find it easier to bully Members of Congress on any issue by threatening to use the veto selectively against their pet projects.

In other words, giving the administration a line item veto mostly just encourages the President to act as Logroller-in-Chief. Yes, if the president happens to be stingier with the federal purse than Congress, then giving him or her stronger powers would tend to cut spending – but if it’s Congress that happens to be tight-fisted, then the president will use those same powers to loosen their grip. Historically, presidents are at least as likely to want to spend as Congresses.

It’s just an awful idea. On the budget, there’s really no reason to believe that the Framers (and subsequent norms and laws) got the balance between the legislature and the executive wrong, so there’s no reason to shift power away from Capitol Hill. And make no mistake: that’s what the effects of the line item veto would be. Not changing spending. Just empowering the president at the expense of Congress.


  1. I think this is exactly more way for Congress to abdicate its responsibility for managing the federal budget properly. It is as though Congress has admitted it spends like a drunken sailor and needs a strong admiral to reign it in, ignoring the fact that the admiral has been uncorking the rum barrels himself.

  2. The US Senate hasn't produced a budget in over 2 years, so it's not as if this argument has any use right now.

    If they ever finally get around to doing their jobs, and produce a budget, maybe we can discuss the individual line items within that budget. But first things first. We gotta get the honorables to actually do what they're being paid to do.

  3. I think JB is very wrong here.

    From a "framer's" perspective, there is no way they say they could have predicted something like the 74 act. Or even the 21 act. Congress has too much power on this subject, and we need to return it to the President.

    Has there been a stingy congress since the 1970s? Hmm, about the time of the 74 act, really.

  4. Another consideration: As I see it, one of the worst weaknesses of recent Congresses has been the apparent inability to craft reasonable compromises. In a spending bill, such compromises generally take the form of "you vote for this, and I'll vote for that". Yes, that does lead to a lot of pork, but it also leaves room for reasonable compromise on spending policies. If we have a line item veto, where's the incentive to enter such compromises, when the President can unilaterally take out one side of the deal? We don't need a line item veto; we need competent legislators.

  5. I agree that the line item veto is a bad idea, but is it really even in the same league as a balanced budget amendment? I mean, the country could survive a line item veto, but I really think a balanced budget amendment would destroy the federal government.

  6. William -

    I would like the idea of a balanced budget amendment were it not for one fatal flaw for which I just can't find a fix: You pretty much have to have some sort of "except in emergencies" provision, and anyone familiar with Washington knows that this would surely lead to a permanent state of emergency. Net effect: zero.


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