Who Gets to Not Spend Our Money?

Why a presidential line-item veto seems like a good idea, but isn't


One of the more amusing aftereffects of the Jack Abramoff lobbying scandals has been President Bush's attempted self-reinvention as the tight-fisted defender of the public purse, as evidenced by his State of the Union call to grant him a line-item veto power, ostensibly in order to help beat down the lobbyist-friendly "earmarks" that have us all angry these days (though they represent a very petty portion of total government spending and waste—only around $27 billion last year).

But $27 billion only seems like chump change when gazing at the sky-high piles of cash and numbers that constitute the federal budget as a whole. To any individual taxpayer, that's thousands of lifetimes worth of tax burdens. And if anyone knows how to think about ginormous chunks of federal money, it should be the very president asking for this power to help us save portions of that $27 billion lost to earmarks. Bush has been, in both discretionary and nondiscretionary spending, both military and non-military budgets, absurdly profligate and reckless, with total discretionary spending up 35.8 percent in his first five years and non-defense discretionary spending up 27.9 percent.

So, might the repentant sinner do us any good with this power—one he's sought, though not particularly noisily, for years? Bill Clinton enjoyed the power from 1997 to 1998, and used it 82 times involving 11 spending bills, which saved around $2 billion. But the Supreme Court took the toy away from him, calling it unconstitutional in the 1998 Clinton v. City of New York decision. In a 6-3 vote, they decided that it violated the Presentment Clause of Article I, which gives the president but two choices when confronted with legislation that has duly passed Congress: signing or vetoing.

It is unclear how Bush's yet-unspecified plan will get around that prohibition. Numerous proposals are flo ating around Congress now (as they do every year, to no effect), including one that would allow the prez to instruct Congress on the items he thinks should go, forcing them to vote again within 15 days on whether they really want to spend that, with only a simple majority, not two-thirds, required to decide that yes, they really do want to.

The line-item veto is perfectly common on the state level, with 43 governors enjoying some version of the power, which can include either a full line-item veto or a line-reduction veto. The power, extent and importance of this power in curbing state-level spending has been studied and argued over by political scientists for years. The evidence is inconclusive, with overall effects on spending estimated to be either small, nonexistent, or dependent on situations where opposing parties control the two branches and the opposition is unable to overturn the governor's vetoes.

The president used to exercise the power to refuse to spend money Congress had demanded be spent, known as "impounding." Every president from Jefferson through Nixon claimed this prerogative, and most used it (though most also found themselves being sued, and losing, by parties claiming injury as a result of the money's not being spent). Nixon used impounding to eliminate 7 percent of domestic appropriations one year. The 1974 Congressional Budget and Impoundment Control Act put a stop to impoundment, replacing it with the weaker power of "rescission," which requires active Congressional approval to withhold the funds the president wants withheld, an approval usually not granted. While courts generally were not friendly to impoundment when challenged, it hurts to give up completely on one last means by which government spending, even when approved by that portion of government closest to the people, could be halted.

Why does Bush want it now? We have no reason to suppose cutting federal discretionary spending is a concern of a man who has never once seen fit to veto a spending bill for any reason. The most obvious reason is the cynical post-Abramoff bandwagon jumping mentioned above, to be accompanied by promises that we will begin saving money for taxpayers the first Monday after we land on Mars or win the war on terror. But there may be even worse motives behind this very executive-privilege-minded administration's attempt to reclaim the line-item veto.

Checks and balances are grand things, and I always have some sympathy for any rule that allows any politician to bedevil any other one and prevent them from getting their way. A presidential line-item veto would give presidents the less-benevolent power (which Clinton was thought to have tried to use at least once when he had it) to lean on individual legislators to get what they want. That is, the threat to kill a precious earmark in exchange for going along on some other matter. And in a political world where there are no meta-political ideological barriers to keep the executive or legislative branches of the federal government from spending on any old thing they please, a line-item veto could well merely shift the points of special-interest lobbying pressure from 535 saps to just one.

Thus, one needn't be a congressional power-of-the-purse absolutist to be skeptical that granting Bush, or future presidents, this line-item power would have much significance for the citizens whose money the president and Congress will be scrapping over—although undoubtedly the president could save some money for us here and there, as Clinton did and as state governors do on certain specific matters.

The problem with checks and balances on spending nowadays is that, in the overall picture (there will always be small individual exceptions), the two branches are essentially balancing in the same direction: toward more spending. As long as we can't trust any of them to have a principled and consistent attitude toward when and why the government gets to spend our money, the line-item veto will be less the fantasized meat cleaver of taxpayers' vengeance and more a replay of failures like Gramm-Rudman-Hollings. Politicians, of whatever branch, are not to be trusted to restrain themselves, or each other, from spending our money.