In case you haven’t noticed, our government is broken. Not too many years ago, a bill dealing with veterans would pass with broad bipartisan support. Extending SNAP and unemployment benefits in a soft job market and economic recovery would be a given. Expanding infrastructure spending might stimulate some debate, but in the end would be recognized as a necessity. Something such as the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) would be reauthorized without any real opposition from either side.
But, due to the hyperpartisanship in Washington and the hijacking of one of the main parties by people and ideas that were considered fringe elements as recently as thirty five years ago, what would be considered safe bills are nothing of the sort now. We see what would formerly be considered essential legislation either die in committee, or be loaded up with controversial amendments that more often or not have nothing to do with what the original legislation was about. Wouldn’t it be nice if there was some way to strip the garbage out of a bill after it goes through Congress?
We actually had that capability to a certain degree at the executive level for a couple years during the Clinton administration. On April 9, 1996, President Bill Clinton signed the Line Item Veto Act of 1996 into law, after being approved unaminously in the House and by a 69-29 margin in the Senate. So, what is a line item veto? Why don’t we have it any more, and why should we look at reinstating it?
The line item veto as implemented during the 1990s applied to spending issues only; the long title of the Line Item Veto Act was “An Act To give the President line item veto authority with respect to appropriations, new direct spending, and limited tax benefits.” Title X of The Impoundment Control Act of 1974 gave the President the power to both delay the expenditure of funds (deferral authority) and to cancel funds (rescission authority). However, Congress needed to concur with the President on any rescinding of funds within 45 days in order for the funds to actually be cut from the budget, and there wasn’t any requirement for Congress to bring it up for a vote. The Line Item Veto Act of 1994 shifted the burden onto Congress by making it so if Congress didn’t specifically override the rescission, the rescission would be what was implemented.
So, why isn’t it in place any more? It was challenged almost immediately by a group of six senators. The DC Circuit Court found it unconstitutional; a ruling that was overturned by the Supreme Court on the grounds of the senators lacking standing. The DC Circuit Court a year later combined two new challenges to the law and once again ruled it unconstitutional; this time, the Supreme Court concurred.
Since then the decision has been criticized by various legal scholars. Congress has tried to pass a new version of the bill on a couple occasions. The last time was in 2012, when it passed through the House but never came up for a vote in the Senate; a victim of election year politics.
Why should we look at reinstating it? Accountability. As we stated earlier, one of the big problems with our dysfunctional government is the addition of controversial and irrelevant amendments to must pass bills. If the President has line item veto powers, he could conceivably veto these amendments, and therefore requiring a two thirds majority in both the House and Senate to reinstate the vetoed item. Our representatives wouldn’t be able to use the “It was a must pass bill, so I had to let that provision through” excuse that they so often hide behind. Of course, the same would apply to the President; as he or she couldn’t hide behind that excuse either.
The line item veto could be a big help in cutting to the chase and passing laws and appropriations without any irrelevant garbage attached to it. Forty four states have line item veto provisions; why should the federal government be any different?