Donald Trump

Trump Wants a 'Line-Item Veto' on Budget Bills. That Was Ruled Unconstitutional 20 Years Ago.

Been there, tried that.

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Well, it's done. After his will-I-or-won't-I-sign-this antics this morning, President Donald Trump has signed the $1.3 trillion spending bill that passed the House of Representatives last night.

But Trump being Trump, he wasn't going to pass up an opportunity to air his many grievances with Congress, Frank Costanza–style. And he's got a lot of problems with you people.

Among the president's laundry list of complaints was that the bill contains too many random and unnecessary expenses. He's absolutely right, though the gripe rings awfully hollow coming from the one man on earth who was actually in a position to stop the budget from becoming law.

Trump's solution, unsurprisingly, was to give more power to Trump. Congress, he said, should pass a law granting the president a "line-item veto" over budget bills—that is, the power to strike out individual appropriations rather than having to choose between accepting or rejecting the bill wholesale.

A bold, innovative idea for streamlining American governance? Not exactly.

Way back in 1996, a Republican* Congress tried to do just that, passing the Line Item Veto Act in the hopes of giving then-President Bill Clinton the power to excise specific appropriations from the federal budget.

The act passed, but it didn't last long. In 1997, the City of New York and a number of health care companies who had lost funding to one of Clinton's line-item vetoes sued, arguing that the law impermissibly blurred the Constitution's separation of the legislative and executive functions of government. The Supreme Court agreed, holding in 1998's Clinton v. City of New York that the line-item veto violated the Presentment Clause, which is the portion of the Constitution which lays out the veto process. In essence, the Court said, Congress cannot delegate its constitutional power to craft and modify legislation to the executive.

Clinton v. New York isn't as universally known as Roe v. Wade or Brown v. Board of Education, but it isn't exactly obscure. It's a landmark case in U.S. constitutional law, a cornerstone of the "nondelegation doctrine" that underpins many past and ongoing debates about the structure of American government. If you went to high school after 1998, you've probably at least heard of it once.

If so, congratulations. You're apparently better informed on the structure of the U.S. government than the president.

*Correction: An earlier version of this post incorrectly stated that the 1996 Congress was majority Democrat.

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  1. Even I think this article is needlessly snarky. Line item veto is a good idea. And calling for congress to add a law to allow it is a reasonable call to action from the President.

    1. Agreed.

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    2. The down side (or possibly upside) of reintroducing line item vetoes is that bipartisanship is essentially no longer a thing. The party opposite the president’s has little chance to get anything through a line item veto. Without that, how are the congress critters supposed to get their pork in exchange for voting through legislation?
      It’s a good idea when you have some trust in the executive, but really does give too much power to the presidency. It essentially makes it impossible to get legislation to his desk or impossible to get through any bit of a law that goes against his agenda.

      1. Yeah, any idea that further empowers the executive branch needs to be treated like radioactive diarrhea. No president will ever use it to reduce overall spending, and any reduction in line-item wastefulness will be coincidental to the real point of making the president’s agenda the only agenda.

        1. Libertarians should oppose, by default, any increases in executive power.

        2. Agreed. Great idea in theory, but it’s guaranteed to be misused by the assholes in power. Contrarily, all libertarian ideas are going to be unpopular with the assholes in power, so we’re going to have to compromise somewhere.

          I wonder if it could be cleverly implemented to this end.

          1. Did you see the stack of papers? How could you have time to read it line by line overnight?

            1. This insane borderline-government-shutdown shit has to stop, too. If they can’t keep the government running now, I know they’re not thinking for a moment about the future. Atrocious.

              1. They are only concerned with their own future, not yours or anyone else’s.

              2. This is going to be S.O.P. until the Republic falls. Might as well get comfortable.

                1. Yep. The system is beyond reform at this point. There is no mechanism for that. We’re stuck with what we’ve got until it completely collapses.

                  1. Agreed.

    3. It’s a gimmick by people who think that any cutting is always good. If we’re going to let the executive amend a bill passed by Congress, why not let him add as well as subtract?

      1. we should just outlaw the omnibus packages. it was never intended to go this way. congress is supposed to vote on program by program, not circle-jerk each other to get all their pet crap passed

      2. That’s why left hero Bill Clinton wanted it? Get your talking points straight.

        1. Budget cutting hysteria was all the rage at that time. Obviously it’s out of fashion now.

          1. “Budget cutting hysteria was all the rage at that time. Obviously it’s out of fashion now.”

            I hadn’t even seen the phrase “pork-barrel” in a decade until I just read it in the Wikipedia article about line-item vetoes.

            Not that it wasn’t obvious everyone had given up when the “conservatives” currently in office passed the worst budget of all time.

            1. Anyone left that calls themselves a conservative is almost certainly not one given that this is a Republican budget. I think there may be one or two actual conservatives in office, I guess, but not enough to do anything other than watch in horror.

        2. If Trump gets liberals to start considering the implications of ceding power to the government, let it happen. Similarly, remind any Trump fans of how pissed they were when Obama was pushing the limits.

          1. Team Red and Team Blue have no such principles. Such arguments will always fall on deaf ears.

    4. “Trump is dumber than a high school student hurr durr.”

    5. “”And calling for congress to add a law to allow it is a reasonable call to action from the President.””

      Since it was struck down for constitutional reasons, a law would not work. You would need to amend the Constitution.

      1. Or ban the courts from reviewing a new law

    6. Fucking moron. It’s unconstitutional. Ain’t nothing Congress can enact to change that.

      Get the fuck out of here. Jesus.

      1. They could pass an amendment. But that’s unlikely to happen

    7. I don’t see any support for it in the Constitution. You are free to go get support for a Constitutional amendment.

  2. Clinton v. New York will be the new title in the Cloverfield franchise.

  3. Yeah but the dumbass supporters was trying to appease don’t know that.

    (They aren’t appeased. I’m told there is much wailing and burning of MAGA hats at Breitbart right now.)

  4. There’s one thing Congress can do – and that’s to propose a constitutional amendment to the states empowering the President to exercise a line-item veto.

    In theory, of course, one might think Congress would hesitate to surrender its prerogatives of forcing a gigantic budget on the Pres on a take-it-or-leave-it basis.

    But consider the political benefits Congresscritters could reap.

    They could vote to add pork to a budget bill, appeasing their more clamorous constituents, knowing that the Pres will veto it. Then they could boast that “hey, we tried!”

    1. No congress in the last near-century has hesitated to cede power to the executive when given a chance. If it’s good enough for war-making, it’s good enough for legislating, dammit.

      1. The judicial branch is the last thing ostensibly keeping Trump from going all Caesar on us.

        1. Same goes for the previous idiot in the Oval Office.

    2. Why not a paragraph item veto? SCOTUS hasn’t ruled on that yet. (Tongue in cheek reference to how states and municipalities try to skirt SCOTUS rulings by jumping on any loophole the court leaves them)

  5. AFAIK, I’ve never heard of Clinton v. New York. I actually thought there already was some form of line-item veto. Today I learned.

    1. Same here. I was a senior in high school in 1998, but my government teacher was a shambles of a human being and never brought up current constitutional happenings.

      1. I mean, i knew there wasn’t currently a line-item veto, but never exactly why.

        1. Same, didn’t realize it was so recently lost. I figured it had just never been a thing. Amazing that it took that long for people to sue for their hand outs.

            1. The first line item veto was authorized by Congress in 1996. Other Presidents had tried to get such laws passed, but it never happened before then.

              1. That’s why I’m an idiot.

      2. my government teacher was a shambles of a human being

        Hm, I didn’t know the Norfolk city schools were so desperate for teachers that they hired shoggoths.

    2. Clinton v. New York prohibits line-item vetoes at the federal level, but not at the state level. Forty-four states give their governor this power.

      1. Interesting. Thanks, Budd Hastalin.

      2. This is where I was mistaken. I know my state has it.

  6. “”Way back in 1996, a Democratic Congress tried to do just that, passing the Line Item Veto Act in the hopes of giving then-President Bill Clinton the power to excise specific appropriations from the federal budget.””

    I vaguely remember Clinton using the line item veto until it was ruled unconstitutional.

  7. Now, I haven’t heard anyone claim a line-item veto would be a cure-all. The same political incentives which protect huge entitlements from Congressional cuts will also protect them from the President.

    But at least some of the more silly appropriations can be vulnerable.

    And, dare I dream, vetoing silly expenditures may cross a psychological barrier – the barrier which currently says “no cuts at all.” Start with some cuts, the world doesn’t end, then try bigger cuts.

  8. “The Court said, Congress cannot delegate its constitutional power to craft and modify legislation to the executive.”

    On the other hand, if the president wants to fight a war on Yemen, bail out the insurance companies by way of ObamaCare, or join the Paris Climate accord [Treaty], congress can’t stop him?

    Oh, and the federal government can’t do anything about cities and sates defying the federal law on immigration either.

    There may be a bend in the river every once in a while, but the river of horseshit always seems to pile up in same direction. Somebody should burst the independent courts myth. The decisions that are made and the logic behind them are a function of everything else that’s going on in society.

    1. I was about to comment on how the modern regulatory state is pretty much the antithesis to such a statement.

    2. But apparently the Supremes will let the Penna. Supremes grab the power to draw congressional districts from the legislature in clear violation of the Penna. constitution.

    3. Oh, and the federal government can’t do anything about cities and sates defying the federal law on immigration either.

      They aren’t defying the Federal government. They simply aren’t cooperating anymore.

    4. Exactly. We all should have learned in school that the only job of the Executive Branch should be to execute the law. See that it is carried out. Much as reason is slave to the passions, the executive branch is and ought only to be subservient to the Legislature, and should aspire to no other office but to serve and obey it.

  9. I’ve never understood this.

    The president HAS a ‘line-item’ veto.

    He gets the budget, goes through it, and strikes out or alters the things that he doesn’t like. He says ‘Change it or I veto it.”

    And there you go.

    What’s so hard about this?

    1. Didn’t you hear him? The country was in imminent danger of military attack if he didn’t sign it.

      1. JFC. I’m sure if he hadn’t signed it we’d be hearing you complain about government shutdown, the National Parks, etc. Try not to be so transparently partisan.

        1. The MAGA people are freaking out over this far more than I am.

          1. That’s because he didn’t veto it and ‘shut down the government again’ – which you freaked out about last time.

            1. Thinking in counterfactuals is hard.

            2. Pretty sure I was happy watching Trump shut it down in record time.

              Of course it’s all fun and games until John Bolton gets hired and Trump feels the need to wag a dog.

              1. Dude, reading comprehension?


  10. In essence, the Court said, Congress cannot delegate its constitutional power to craft and modify legislation to the executive.

    And yet, in the years since (and, honestly, even before) that is exactly what they have done. Of course, the line item veto is an especially egregious example, but then so to is the EPA and the rest of the alphabet soup.

    1. Or the last ACA case where the court said the executive can read a law to make it fit the executive’s policy goals, without regard to what is actually written.

  11. Of course the Feds are afraid of shutting down the government. If they did that people would find out that we don’t need half of them in the first place.

    1. Then who would stand around leaning on shovels or shoot dogs for us?

      1. That is the funny thing. The dog shooters and shovel leaners are State or local. Pretty much everything we actually want just goes on, schools, medical EMS, fire department, all that. The military goes on, social security, post office, pretty much everything. That is why they make such a big deal about the parks, I can live without those for a while, it would be good for them actually.

        The whole thing is just a scare tactic so whomever signed off on the crappy bill can say they had no choice.

  12. Trump wants a line item veto.

    “Oh, and horses, from now on I want my guards to be riding horses and wearing shiny swords. They have those, the marines do. Swords. I am big on military. I know these things. Most people don’t.”

  13. Despite arguments to the contrary, I think a line item veto is a good idea. I guess if the particular language of the constitution doesn’t allow it, then it’s good that they shot it down. But they may have misread it too, as they often do. I don’t know, I haven’t looked.

    The only real difference though is that it allows the president to kick stuff out instead of a whole bill. In reality that would mean if he line item vetoed something, they would have to go back to repass it with a veto proof majority. This might happen for “important” stuff, but rarely for pork projects etc. So I think it would be a good thing. Oh well!

  14. How about a change to the rules of the House and Senate that would allow each member to challenge X number of line-items, and force a floor vote on each of those items individually. Hopefully we would get less of “I had to vote for the crap in order for the good stuff to pass”.

  15. The snark in the article is unwarranted, particularly as there are constitutional options available, such as the “legislative line-item veto”. As an example, each line-item can be sent back to the House for a supermajority vote. How you’d pass a legislative line-item veto bill in the first place is a different story.

  16. This is a great exercise for the Supreme Court too. They either declare an entire law constitutional or reject the entire law as unconstitutional.

    The courts exceed their authority by legislating from the bench which includes fixing laws that would otherwise be unconstitutional.

  17. President Trump just has to insist that Congress pass all spending bills as a numbered sequence of lines each separately designated as ‘bills’, so the president could veto any ‘bill’ he wants to. Just as a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, a line item veto by another ruse would function just as well.

    Yes it sounds tricky, but in fact it’s right in line with the tricky ways in which Congress does sometimes act (and gets away with legally). For instance, Obamacare was originally written in the Senate through a tricky manner to (putatively) satisfy the constitutional requirement that tax bills originate in the House of Representatives.

    What’s sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander.

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  19. A line item veto would be wonderful for a president and bad for congress and their pork barrel politics. It’s why you will NEVER see it comes to light.

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