Friday, May 7, 2010

Line Item Hokum

Can we now say that it's firmly established that Barack Obama has an unfortunate weakness for meaningless budgetary gimmicks?  Yup! 

First it was the deficit commission; now, apparently, (via Allen) he's about to roll out a proposal for a line-item veto, apparently designed to get around the inconvenient but obvious fact that it's unconstitutional. 

Here's all you have to know about the line-item veto: it's deficit neutral, and spending neutral.  What it does do is shift power from Congress to the president, but there's absolutely no reason to expect it to lower spending, or lower the deficit. 

Why?  Because even though a president could use the veto to trim spending, he's just as able to use it to increase spending -- by threatening things that Congress (or perhaps key Members of Congress) want unless they include White House-supported projects.  Such as, for example, critical funding for Iowa and New Hampshire for any president fearing a primary challenge -- or for Florida, Pennsylvania, and Ohio for presidents concerned about reelection and the Electoral College.  Or, just whatever projects that the president promised during the campaign.  Of course, the president currently can press Congress for White House spending priorities, but the line item veto would be a useful tool in bargaining over spending; it comes at the end of the process, unlike budget submissions, and it's a scalpel, not a bludgeon, allowing the president's threat to be far more believable. 

Now, during periods in which the president prefers lower overall spending than what Congress wants, a line item veto might reduce spending -- although it's worth pointing out well over half of all federal spending doesn't really have "line items."  In other words, it's too fine an instrument to really do anything significant to reduce spending.  What the line-item veto would be best for is helping the president bargain with Congress.  If you favor a shift of influence from one end of Pennsylvania Avenue to the other, then I think it makes some sense to support the veto.  But for those of us who think the Framers got it basically right, the line item veto risks upsetting a delicate balance.  Either way, anyone who thinks it will reduce spending or deficits is out of luck; as far as budgets go, it's a gimmick to allow pols to look as if they're doing something that they don't want to do.

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