Judge Vetoes Presidential Line-Item Power: Jackson Declares Law Unconstitutional

Article excerpt

A federal judge in Washington yesterday struck down as unconstitutional the line-item veto, one of the most significant achievements of the GOP-controlled Congress and a budget tool cherished by President Clinton.

The decision came before the president had an opportunity to try out his new power to carve special-interest items out of tax and spending bills. The Justice Department is likely to appeal the ruling, but no decision to do so had been announced last night.

The ruling handed a major victory to longtime foes, including the six members of Congress - five Democrats and one liberal Republican - who challenged the veto in a lawsuit Jan. 2, the day after it went into effect.

The lawsuit argued that it was an unconstitutional giveaway of Congress' power of the purse and a violation of the Constitution's procedures for enacting laws.

U.S. District Judge Thomas Penfield Jackson agreed.

"Where the president signs a bill but then purports to cancel parts of it, he exceeds his constitutional authority and prevents both houses of Congress from participating in the exercise of lawmaking authority," the judge said in his 36-page decision.

"The president's cancellation of an item unilaterally effects a repeal of statutory law," Judge Jackson said. "That is precisely what the presentment clause [of the Constitution] was designed to prevent. . . .

"The court agrees with plaintiffs that, even if Congress may sometimes delegate authority to impound funds, it may not confer the power permanently to rescind an appropriation or tax benefit that has become the law of the United States," he said. "That power is possessed by Congress alone, and, according to the framers' careful design, may not be delegated at all."

The 1996 line-item veto law, a top priority of the House GOP's "Contract With America" in the 104th Congress, would have allowed the president to reject specific items in spending and tax bills within five days of signing a law. Congress could overturn his decision, but only if both houses mustered a two-thirds vote to reinstate the vetoed provision.

Judge Jackson questioned why, if the president could change appropriations or tax bills, could he not also cancel provisions of environmental-protection or civil rights laws that he did not like.

Under the line-item measure, "the dynamic of lawmaking is fundamentally altered," with lawmakers having to take into account the president's line-item-veto power in making tradeoffs and compromises, said Judge Jackson, a 1982 appointee of President Reagan. …