When to Cry 'Uncle': The Line-Item Veto

By Burton, Bruce W. | Commonweal, September 24, 1993 | Go to article overview

When to Cry 'Uncle': The Line-Item Veto


Burton, Bruce W., Commonweal


Envision a line-item veto with real fiscal teeth that is not a threat to the traditional balance of powers between the White House and the Congress. Such a veto, created by constitutional amendment and crafted to preserve our historical democratic traditions, can readily be modeled on the benign aspects of receivership practices used to resuscitate troubled businesses.

The mounting fiscal crisis faced by the republic as we close out the century can likely be solved only by serious fiscal restraints. These are not apt to arise within the Congress. By the nature of things, Congress's current political equation results in, de facto, a "beggar-thy-grandchildren" fiscal policy that threatens to drown the economic future of coming generations in unpaid bills.

Congresspersons cannot be expected heroically to resist demands for more submarines, AIDS research, farm subsidies, or Medicare expansions. On the contrary, such legislators can inevitably be expected to collaborate in logrolling through Congress the yearly tidal wave of constituent-gratifying appropriations.

Under the present equation, only the office of president can be expected, if only sporadically, to take a more transcendent view of the nation's welfare. Only the president, as the single office-holder with a nationwide mandate, can be expected to focus as a trustee should, not merely on immediate constituent needs as defined by a wide spectrum of interest groups, but on the nation as a constituent. Only the president will view, at least sometimes, the national good in terms of the longterm welfare of our posterity as a constituency--the as yet unborn generations of our citizenry.

Envision a constitutional amendment that permitted the president to be the nation's fiscal fiduciary during short periods of financial crisis. The special veto power would enable the president to eliminate any item in any new spending measure or any item in any prior enactment. Such a potent fiscal veto would be subject to the usual two-thirds override by congressional vote. Such a veto power--parallel to the notion of emergency powers in usage for hundreds of years in the Roman Republic before Caesar--would be limited in time. The arrival of a defined crisis would trigger the veto power and the end of the crisis, or the end of the current fiscal year, whichever came later, would mark its expiration. "Fiscal crisis" would be defined in the amendment by a simple formula, readily applied. No permanent displacements would occur in the normal balance of powers between Congress and the Executive. …

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