Line item veto tips the balance of power

On Jan. 1, 1997, the federal line item veto, which allows the president to strike specific items from spending bills without vetoing the bill in its entirety, went into effect. The line item veto was first proposed more than a century ago. President Ronald Reagan ambitiously revived the idea during his administration and on March 28, 1996, the 104th Congress finally passed the legislation. The federal law is similar to the laws of many states, including Minnesota, that grant governors line item veto power over their state’s legislation. At first glance the line item veto appears to be an excellent way to trim pork from the government’s budget, but serious questions remain about the law’s constitutionality and its ability to get at the root of a problem.
The line item veto is popular because many see it as a solution to the millions of dollars worth of riders — additional legislation tacked on to the end of a bill that has been through committee — that find their way into the annual budget. Requests for funding for pet projects and pay raises are often found attached to popular bills that are expected to pass easily. But when taxpayers find themselves paying the cost for underground wind tunnels in Texas and subsidies for real estate developers in New York, they are understandably upset, especially when they discover that the funding was appropriated through unrelated legislation.
Although these conditions clearly indicate a failure of Congress to govern responsibly, the line item veto has too many drawbacks to be an effective solution. Some members of Congress have vowed to challenge the line item veto in court and they have a strong case. The U.S. Constitution carefully laid out provisions to maintain a balance of power between the three branches of government, including the power of the president to veto a bill in its entirety and the ability of Congress to override those vetoes.
Strong presidents such as Franklin Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson, however, have increased the power of the executive branch in the 20th century. Although the federal law limits the extent of the line item veto, it clearly tips the balance further toward the president. The bill sets a precedent for legislation that could allow the president even more power to change the nature of a bill passed by Congress. Even in its limited form, the line item veto fortifies the strength the executive branch over the others — precisely the type of situation the Constitution clearly intended to prevent.
Aside from opening somewhat dangerous doors, tinkering with the Constitution doesn’t really solve the problem. Rather than giving the president more power, what is truly needed is responsibility and restraint from legislators, or a bill that deals specifically with the issue of riders. The current behavior of Congress shows a blatant disregard for the people they claim to represent. Voters followed an anti-incumbency trend in the early ’90s because many felt that the government’s wasteful spending and budget abuses were signs that their representatives had grown out of touch with their interests. The failure of representatives to adequately respond to the public’s interest shows us that members of Congress need to change their behavior, not the Constitution.