The Power of the Purse

By Slade, David C. | The World and I, June 1998 | Go to article overview

The Power of the Purse


Slade, David C., The World and I


Like an alcoholic with momentary resolutions of temperance, the U.S. Congress, enabled by presidents, has driven this country into massive debt while occasionally proclaiming its most ardent intentions of balancing the budget ... somehow ... someday. Since George Washington's time, presidents have decried the congressional habit of over-spending.

In 1876 President Grant refused to spend money appropriated by Congress for river-channel maintenance because it was "for works of purely private or local interest." Since Grant, numerous presidents have called for a constitutional amendment giving them line-item veto authority. Such a constitutional amendment has never passed. Franklin Roosevelt, and every president since, requested Congress to authorize by statute some form of line-item veto.

Indeed, Congress has tried to control its spending habit in numerous legislative ways over the past 30 years. During the Vietnam War years--the last time a balanced budget was passed--Congress authorized the president to unilaterally reduce or eliminate spending items as he saw fit. In 1974 it passed the Impoundment Control Act, allowing the president to withhold spending on "permissive" programs, in contrast to mandating expenditures on programs like Social Security. The debt increased.

In 1985, with the federal debt continuing to balloon, Congress passed the Gramm-Rudman-Hollings Act, which authorized the president to "sequester" funding for a broad range of programs for which Congress approved funding. It didn't work. Congress could not even meet its own debt-reduction targets that it set in the act.

Still unable to control its deficit spending habit, Congress allowed the federal debt to grow to such proportions that Carl Sagan's concept of "billions of billions" was needed for the human mind to grasp how much a $5.4 trillion debt is.

Finally, as the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia put it, "unable to control its voracious appetite for `pork,' Congress passed the Line Item Veto Act in 1996" authorizing the president to cancel certain spending provisions and tax benefits, collectively known as line items. To exercise this cancellation authority, the president must submit a "special message" to Congress, within five days after signing the funding bill, identifying the line items that are canceled.

If Congress wants to overturn the president's cancellation of the line items, it must pass a "disapproval bill" just like any other bill, and send it to the president. The president can then either sign the disapproval bill or veto it just like any other bill.

Bill Clinton was the first president to act under this new authority when, in 1997, he canceled 78 line items, totaling less than $500 million. Although this was a step in the right direction toward deficit reduction, it represented less than 1/3,000th of the national debt. Of these 78 line items, one would have granted New York State additional Medicaid funds, and another would have given a tax break to potato growers in Idaho.

Both the city of New York and the Idaho potato growers challenged the constitutionality of the line-item veto. They filed suit in federal District Court arguing that the Line Item Veto Act was an unconstitutional delegation of law-making authority from Congress to the president, and thus violated both Article 1 of the Constitution and the doctrine of separation of powers. …

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