Why Not a Line-Item Veto?

So President Bush wants to bring back the line-item veto as a way of reining in spending. The veto would allow him to strip away any earmark that he doesn’t like from a bill without vetoing the entire bill—a power that would, theoretically, be good for cutting out “wasteful” congressional pork. President Clinton was granted similar authority by Congress in 1996, though the Supreme Court eventually struck the veto down, saying it violated the separation of powers and gave “the president the unilateral power to change the text of duly enacted statues.” Presumably the Bush administration thinks their version can pass constitutional muster this time around (or that the Roberts Court will look more kindly on executive power grabs).

This isn’t the biggest deal in the world, but it’s a decent indication of how unserious the administration is about reining in spending. Frankly, the line-item veto isn’t all that effective as a cost-cutting measure: In the eight months that Clinton wielded it he managed to shave off a scant $500 million off the budget. That’s a pittance. Pork isn’t a big part of the federal budget, and never will be. And anyway, most of the time, Congress had no problem overriding Clinton’s cuts. The evidence from the states is no more persuasive: In the 43 states that allow the veto, governors rarely use it, and state legislatures usually just end up vote-trading to divert spending from one wasteful project to another.

No, the only real appeal of the veto lies in its political potential. Clinton occasionally used his power to punish uncooperative Republicans by denying them local projects, as when he struck down tax breaks for Idaho Potato Farmers, just to stick it to one of his more vocal opponents, Sen. Larry Craig. This president could do the same—he could, for instance, influence congressional races by denying Democrats the ability to win votes back home through earmarks, while allowing Republicans to pork out to their hearts content. What would stop him? The opportunities for abuses of power are limitless, and it’s silly to think that this president wouldn’t take advantage of them. (Brian Doherty’s concerns along these lines seem pretty cogent — and that’s from a libertarian.)