A Line-Item Veto Would Upset the Constitutional Balance

It sounds great, but it would bring a major cost to our constitutional balance.


Norman Ornstein is a congressional expert and resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.

The desire to find ways to build meaningful fiscal discipline into an unruly political process is real and commendable. Members of Congress love to claim credit for projects; have trouble resisting interest group demands for more and more, including more spending and more tax cuts; hate to do unpopular things; and have the most trouble resisting the public’s delight at getting government at a discount—wonderful benefits that we don’t have to pay for (at least now) through our tax dollars. Finding a magic bullet, or at least a panacea, to overcome these political verities, is a preoccupation with many of our best public servants.

No wonder, then, that some ideas keep popping up like whack-a-moles, no matter how many times they are rejected or sidetracked. These include a line-item veto.

A line-item veto would have a noble purpose: enabling a president willing to take the political heat to excise wasteful spending put into the budget by pork-addled lawmakers who can’t resist bridges to nowhere. It sounds great—but is less fulfilling than it appears, and would bring a major cost to our constitutional balance.

First, a line-item veto would affect only a trace element of our $3 trillion-plus federal budget, a drop in the ocean, with minimal impact on the deficit and debt problem we have ahead. At the most, the veto might affect 1 percent of the budget. That 1 percent might be wasteful—but when presidents or outside groups have tried to pinpoint what actually would be cut, it turns out that most of the programs and dollars are not so obviously wasteful.

Second, the veto is a distraction. What we desperately need is a sustained focus on ways to do the big things—raising adequate revenue for the programs we need, cutting the rate of growth of the big and popular programs, from entitlements to defense—and the line-item veto can actually distract us from the big picture.

Third, it assumes that wasteful spending is the creature of Congress, while presidents have their own political pressures and political favorites, with programs that are at least as controversial—wasteful to their opponents, worthy to their allies.

Fourth, the line-item veto assumes that earmarks, or projects specifically designated by Congress, are evil or wrongheaded. The explosion and abuse of earmarks in recent years, including projects and government contracts that are driven by bribes, campaign contributions, or for the personal enrichment of lawmakers or their intimates, is evil and awful. But somebody makes decisions about how federal dollars and federal programs are allocated, and it is not so clear that having federal bureaucrats make those decisions is always better than having elected representatives do so.

Fifth and most important, the Constitution sets the power of the purse fundamentally in the hands of the first branch: Congress. There is a role for the president, of course, but it is not the dominant one. The line-item veto would tilt the balance significantly toward the president, giving him or her the ability to punish individual lawmakers or reward them for reasons utterly unrelated to fiscal discipline. Some may like that expansion of executive power. I do not.

There is a sixth reason to be wary: The Supreme Court declared its most potent version unconstitutional. The good news in the current debate is that the form of veto the Obama administration has proposed fits within constitutional guidelines. That makes it less unpalatable, but still does not negate the reasons for opposing it.

Read why the line-item veto would effectively curb wasteful spending, by Ryan Alexander, president of Taxpayers for Common Sense.