The Line Item Veto: A Good Idea

Commentary by Pete du Pont

During the 1980s, Ronald Reagan constantly complained about being presented with vast catch-all spending bills. These bills would often contain mountains of pork-barrel spending on dams, roads, and other projects of dubious value. But Reagan only had the option of either signing the bill ­ including the pork ­ or vetoing the whole thing. He did not have the power, that as Governor of California he had used often, of vetoing only specific portions of a spending bill. Although Reagan repeatedly asked for legislation to give him such line-item veto authority, the Democrats in Congress refused in order to keep the pork-barrel express going.

Now that the situation is reversed, with Republicans controlling Congress and a Democrat holding the White House, it would not have been surprising to see Republican support for the line-item veto fade away. After all, it is now they who have the power to push their own pork-barrel projects in the same way Democrats did for so many years. Nevertheless, the Republican Congress enacted the line-item veto last year, giving Bill Clinton the power to delete specific items in regular appropriations bills, as well as the ability to veto specific tax breaks that benefit individual taxpayers or companies. That power took effect on January 1.

There has long been skepticism that the line-item veto would really make any difference in the budget. Critics point to evidence from the states, where most governors have the line-item veto, that such power tends to affect spending priorities rather than the overall amount of spending. In other words, it strengthens the executive's hand in deciding how money will be spent, but does not actually lower spending.

Having been governor of the state of Delaware, it was my experience that the line-item veto could be used to hold down spending. Of course, it is possible that the legislature may only have passed certain wasteful measures because they knew they would be vetoed. From time to time some political games were certainly played, allowing a legislator to claim credit for passing a special interest item in a spending bill, secure in the knowledge that it would not actually be enacted.

Nevertheless, even if all the line-item veto does is give the president a bit more power over spending, that is a good thing. And I say this even knowing that Bill Clinton's spending priorities are probably not my own. The reason is that the Budget Act of 1974 emasculated the president's budget authority in a way that on balance has been bad for the country.

For all intents and purposes, every president from George Washington through Richard Nixon had effective line-item veto authority. It was called impoundment authority. Basically what it meant was that Congress would enact various spending bills and if the president thought they were unjustified he simply would not spend the money. In essence, the spending was vetoed.

This led the Democratic Congress to seek a way to force the president to spend the money that was appropriated. The 1974 legislation, rammed down Nixon's throat when he was politically weakened by Watergate, accomplished this goal. Henceforth, presidents would have to ask Congress to rescind spending they wished to delete from the budget. Moreover, Congress was not even obliged to act on presidential recision requests. Consequently, most recisions simply died without any congressional action.

The reason why the president should have greater power over the budget than he has had since 1974 is that he is the only official our country elected by all the people. Members of Congress represent individual states or districts and thus necessarily have a parochial point of view on many issues. And because some members of Congress have more power over spending than others, due to seniority or committee membership, it will necessarily be the case that congressional spending priorities will not correspond to the nation's actual needs. Someone must be able to say that we really don't need another highway in the district of the chairman of the House Appropriations Committee. Instead we may want one in the district of a junior member of some non-spending committee, because that is where the need is. The person in the best position to make that judgment is the president.

Of course, there is always the danger that the president will use the line-item veto simply as a political weapon ­ vetoing projects to punish his enemies or to gain leverage on other issues. Maybe he will. But if he does, legislatures have their own ways of evening the score.

Excessive spending is the hallmark of Congressional politics since 1974. The line item veto will help, even if only a little, to reduce it.

For the Republic, that is a good thing.