Academic journal article Presidential Studies Quarterly

The Item Veto Dispute and the Secular Crisis of the Presidency

Academic journal article Presidential Studies Quarterly

The Item Veto Dispute and the Secular Crisis of the Presidency

Article excerpt

America's brief experiment with a presidential item veto came to an abrupt, if expected, end when the Supreme Court ruled on June 25, 1998, that Congress had improperly ceded to the president the de facto power to rewrite legislation when it approved "enhanced rescission" power for the president in 1996. The controversy over the granting of this power did and does extend to both constitutional and political dimensions. While the item veto debate may not seem to conform to the crisis theme that unites the articles in this journal, I will argue that this dispute plays an important role in a contemporary secular crisis engulfing the modern presidency and for which the Clinton presidency serves as an exemplar. Before proceeding to this normative question, this article will examine the power briefly exercised by Clinton, the power's use and political consequences, and the Court's disposition of the matter.

Disentangling the Power in Question

Arguments that the president should be granted an item veto first emerged in Congress in the 1840s.(1) The first codification of the power appeared in the Confederate Constitution of 1861, although Confederate President Jefferson Davis never used the power. After the Civil War, the idea spread rapidly among the states. Georgia first gave an item veto to its governor in 1865; by the early 1900s, most state executives had the power. Today, forty-three of fifty state governors have some kind of item veto. At the presidential level, Ulysses S. Grant first called for the power in 1873. From 1876 to the present, close to two hundred proposals for a presidential item veto have been considered by Congress.(2) The idea received added attention when the Republican Party included the call for an item veto in its 1994 Contract with America. It represented the only contract item on which House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-GA), Senate Republican Leader and presidential nominee Bob Dole (R-KS), and Clinton agreed.

On April 9, 1996, President Clinton signed into law the Line Item Veto Act (PL 104-130; 110 Stat. 1200), arguing that it would "permit Presidents to better represent the public interest by cutting waste, protecting taxpayers and balancing the budget." Dole concurred, saying that it would "help put Washington on a pork-free diet."(3) While the act's title would seem to resolve any question about the type of power being granted, specialists noted immediately that the power was, in fact, an enhanced rescission.(4) Louis Fisher called the term item veto "a misnomer" that prompted "widespread confusion."(5) Under the terms of the Budget and Impoundment Control Act of 1974, to which the Item Veto Act was an amendment, presidents were given the power to roll back spending that had been duly enacted by Congress if, and only if, both houses of Congress approved the proposed rescission. The 1996 act broadened this power--ergo, enhanced rescission--by allowing presidents to block certain kinds of spending without congressional approval. According to the new law, presidents could now block dollar amounts of discretionary budget authority, items of direct new spending, and limited tax benefits affecting one hundred or fewer beneficiaries within five days of signing a bill. Any spending measures canceled in this way would remain canceled unless Congress moved to legislatively resurrect the canceled items, which would pass by simple majority vote. The president could then veto such enactments, which in turn could be overridden by two-thirds vote in Congress.(6) Because presidents had to sign the act in question before canceling spending found within the act, it was not actually an item veto, some argued. This argument was key to dodging the fundamental constitutional objection--namely, that an item veto could be given to the president only by amendment to the Constitution, since the veto power described in Article I, section 7, only allowed the president to veto (or sign) the enrolled legislation presented to him by Congress. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.