Federal judge rules line item veto unconstitutional

WASHINGTON (AP) — In a decision affecting federal spending and the balance of governmental power, a judge on Thursday struck down as unconstitutional a law that lets the president veto specific items out of bills passed by Congress.
The 37-page ruling by U.S. District Judge Thomas Penfield Jackson overturns the Line-Item Veto Act. The law was passed by Congress a year ago and became effective Jan. 1, but President Clinton had never exercised it.
The law allowed the president, for the first time, to veto particular items in spending bills and certain limited tax provisions passed by Congress. Previously, the president could only veto entire bills.
Jackson said the law flatly contradicts basic tenets of the Constitution.
“Where the president signs a bill but then purports to cancel parts of it, he exceeds his constitutional authority and prevents both Houses of Congress from participating in the exercise of lawmaking authority,” Jackson wrote.
“Never before has Congress attempted to give away the power to shape the content of a statute of the United States, as the act purports to do …. The formalities of the constitutional framework must be respected.”
The Clinton administration has asked the court to throw out the challenge by six members of Congress. The lawmakers, led by the senior Senate Democrat Robert C. Byrd, D-W.Va., argued the law was an unconstitutional encroachment of Congress’ legislative power.
“I am very pleased with the court’s decision, which I believe to be a great victory for the American people and our Constitution,” Byrd said in a statement.
The administration had contended that the lawmakers lacked standing to sue “because they have not alleged personal injury in fact, which has been or necessarily will be inflicted on them … and which is redressable by judicial decree.”
“We’re disappointed of course, but we won’t have any further comment until the Justice Department has an opportunity to read the decision,” said White House spokesman Barry Toiv.
But supporters of the law were quick to urge Clinton to appeal Jackson’s ruling, predicting the issued will eventually be decided by the Supreme Court. Jackson, himself, agreed it “undoubtedly” will.
“…While no other branch of government can usurp Congress’ authority, the Congress itself can delegate that authority,” Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona and Dan Coats of Indiana said in a joint statement. “There are clear precedents in tax and tariff law.”
Clinton wanted the law to block excessive spending and special-interest tax breaks that lawmakers sometimes include in bills.
The law allowed the president to sign a bill and within five days still reject a specific spending item in it. Congress could then pass a separate bill to reinstitute the specific item and the president has the power to veto that bill. At that point, Congress would have to muster a two-thirds majority to override the president’s action.
“…The court agrees with plaintiffs that, even if Congress may sometimes delegate authority to impound funds, it may not confer the power permanently to rescind an appropriation or tax benefit that has become the law of the United States,” Jackson wrote.
“That power is possessed by Congress alone, and, according to the framers’ careful design, may not be delegated at all.”
The Republican-controlled Congress passed the law last year as part of its “Contract With America” to put the brakes on federal spending and balance the budget. The measure provided authority that Clinton and nearly every president in the past century has sought.