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Thursday, March 29, 2018

Why the Line-Item Veto Is Not an Idea We Should Be Resurrecting

Americans should be wary of the line-item veto.

President Trump’s signature on the latest budget-busting spending agreement came with a litany of complaints. It also came with the desire for a line-item veto, echoing predecessors from both parties, since a Democratic Congress slapped down Nixon for his use of impoundments (not spending $6 billion of budgeted pork-barrel sewer appropriations) in the 1974 Impoundment Control Act.

However, while presidents love the idea of a line-item veto, which sounds like a good-government improvement, it is not clear Americans would benefit from it. Of course, it would have to be held constitutional first, unlike when it was part of Republicans’s 1994 Contract With America.

Growing Government

Despite claims that presidents represent the people, not special interests, they have plenty of special interests.

A line-item veto sounds like a way for an “adult in the room” president, intent on draining the swamp, to impose fiscal discipline by deleting special-interest pork and waste. It would work by eliminating the ability of those in Congress to deliver on their logrolling agreements. The president could simply void the legislative payoff to any party to a logrolling “contract,” so there would be less incentive for Congress to create such a deal. In particular, it would sharply erode the power of the current contract enforcers—the leadership and committee chairs—to make good on their promises.

Unfortunately, a presidential line-item veto could also be used to grow government even more. That is, it might change the top predator in the swamp rather than draining it. While it could reduce congressional pork, it would increase presidential pork. The president would become the only ultimate enforcer of congressional fiscal negotiations, and so would have to be not just included in every logrolling agreement, but at the center. That would provide him vastly increased legislative leverage, and that could just as easily grow government as it could shrink it.

Using the seeming “government shrinkage tool” of a line-item veto to expand government simply requires the president to threaten carefully targeted item vetoes, unless Congress passed his desired legislation. He could make every individual item in every bill that benefited any recalcitrant legislator disappear unless he was given what he wanted. And that would expand the government whenever what he wanted was “more.”

Despite claims that presidents represent the people, not special interests, they have plenty of special interests. He wants to help swing constituencies and large states that will be competitive in the Electoral College, even at the expense of those whose votes are not so crucial. He wants to help states with “at risk” candidates from his party and to punish those with similarly situated opponents. He wants similar sway over his own party members. And every president has personal spending priorities, such as, say, building a wall.

Congressional Minorities

Supporting a line-item veto seems like a good way to prove one’s commitment to cut federal pork. But nothing is ever so simple in Washington.

A line-item veto would especially shrink the power of congressional minorities. However, when the president belongs to the congressional minority party, it would give that party far more power over legislation. But if the president’s party had a congressional majority, a line-item veto would almost eliminate any minority party power. The minority’s power to advance their agenda is by making legislative deals in exchange for support of strongly-favored policies. But their part of any such deals could always be voided by the president after the fact. And the minority would certainly not be able to mount a successful veto override in such a case.

Is a line-item veto more likely to shrink or grow government in President Trump’s hands? More expansions than excisions have been agreed to so far, in the absence of such power. But such a change opens the gates to worse results as well as better results. And none of us know what the electoral dynamics will produce for future presidents and Congresses. Yet we know its expansionary power has long been recognized. In 1996, on “This Week With David Brinkley,” Al Gore (echoed by other administration officials) said Clinton would use the added bargaining power conferred by a line-item veto (not yet held unconstitutional) to restore benefits he didn’t want cut by the historic welfare reform bill that was being forced on him after two vetoes.

Supporting a line-item veto seems like a good way to prove one’s commitment to cut federal pork. But nothing is ever so simple in Washington. It may come down to who Americans trust least with their money—the executive branch or the legislative branch. Unfortunately, neither option on that unappetizing menu provides a panacea for Brobdignagian government, grown far beyond its constitutional boundaries, and there is little sign of seriousness on real reforms that would benefit citizens.

  • Gary M. Galles is a Professor of Economics at Pepperdine University and a member of the Foundation for Economic Education faculty network.

    In addition to his new book, Pathways to Policy Failures (2020), his books include Lines of Liberty (2016), Faulty Premises, Faulty Policies (2014), and Apostle of Peace (2013).