Academic journal article Political Research Quarterly

Penny Pinching or Politics? the Line Item Veto and Military Construction Appropriations

Academic journal article Political Research Quarterly

Penny Pinching or Politics? the Line Item Veto and Military Construction Appropriations

Article excerpt

Although scholars have studied the item veto and its effects-at the state-level-for years, there is considerable disagreement over the national-level political and fiscal ramifications of the implementation of the item veto. Our analysis is the first empirical examination of the use of the item veto at the federal level. We find that partisan politics and an interest in fiscal austerity played little or no role in the president's decision-making calculus on recent defense appropriations vetoes. Programmatic goals, on the other hand, played a significant role in determining whether or not projects were vetoed.

"The line-item veto is not a means to encourage presidential abuse, but a means to end congressional abuse. It will give the President appropriate power to help control spending and reduce the deficit." (Senator John McCain (R-AZ) as quoted in Joyce and Reischauer 1997: 95)

"This so-called line-item veto act should be more appropriately labeled 'The President Always Wins Bill."' (Senator Robert C. Byrd (D-WVA) as quoted in Joyce and Reischauer 1997: 95)

When the Line Item Veto Act (PL. 104-130) took effect on January 1, 1997, President Clinton gained an important new tool for influencing budgetary policymaking. Less than eighteen months later, this new institutional authority ended, a casualty of the Supreme Court's ruling in Clinton v. City of New York (No. 97-1374). Between the effective date of the Line Item Veto Act and June 25, 1998--the day the Supreme Court ruled the Line Item Veto unconstitutional, President Clinton had vetoed 78 line items in eleven different legislative acts (Rankin and Epstein 1998).

Though 38 line-item vetoes were overridden, the budgetary savings associated with vetoes that withstood congressional opposition ran into the hundreds of millions of dollars (Rankin and Epstein 1998). For opponents of the line-item veto and a majority of the Supreme Court, these savings came at too dear a constitutional price. Arguing that the line-item veto significantly altered the constitutional balance of power, Justice Stevens writes (for the majority):

The Line Item Veto Act authorizes the president himself to effect the repeal of laws for his own policy reasons, without observing the procedures set out in Article 1. (Clinton v. City of New York, No. 97-1374) (emphasis added)

In the aftermath of the Supreme Court's ruling, the political dynamics of the line-item veto authority remain unexamined. What factors explain President Clinton's use of the line item veto? Does the evidence suggest that the President used the item veto to strike out the most egregiously wasteful congressional pork (as the item veto's supporters expected), or did he use the line-item veto to achieve partisan or personal political goals unrelated to budgetary efficiency (as the Supreme Court feared)?

Using data on military construction appropriations, we analyze President Clinton's exercise of the line-item veto authority Because of the comparability of these projects, they provide a unique testing ground for an examination of the line-item veto power. in the aftermath of Clinton v. City of New York, we (1) examine a significant historical phenomenon and (2) speak to the current and future debate surrounding a line-item veto constitutional amendment. Realizing that nearly all of the research on the line-item veto focuses on the state-level, I we provide the first empirical analysis of the financial and political implications of the line-item veto at the national level.2

Bckground and Theory

According to Plott (1991), one of the fathers of modern public choice theory, the basic political dynamic can be characterized as follows:

Preferences + Institutions = Outcomes

While this "fundamental equation of politics" (Plott 1991) is obviously simplistic, it does highlight two key elements of the policymaking process: preferences and institutions. This description of politics is important for our purposes because the line-item veto was an institutional innovation that both supporters and opponents expected to affect outcomes. …

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