Slaughter: Line-Item Veto Would Create New Problems

Posted June 4, 2010 at 2:41pm

On the surface, the proposal from President Barack Obama to create a modified line-item veto sounds appealing. He and many other presidents have always complained about excessive spending. Whoever sits in the White House always appreciates the added power and leverage he has over Congress when he is given some authority to fast-track his own proposals through the House and Senate. I strongly agree with the president that we need to do something about deficits, and, at first glance, there is a certain appeal to his request for more authority to eliminate spending in a narrow, targeted way.

[IMGCAP(1)]Under the plan from the president, he would submit a package of proposed rescissions, or cuts, to Congress. Congress would not be permitted to amend the president’s package of cuts but would be required to take it up almost immediately, regardless of whatever else is on the floor. Finally, the plan would mean that the president gets an up-or-down vote — no modifications would be allowed.

But there is a reason that the Constitution has a system of checks and balances to counter the desire of the executive to wield extra power. The rationale was that the president already has plenty of options for limiting spending if that’s his goal.

For example, the president already has authority to submit to Congress changes to the budget — essentially specific items that he’d like to strike from the next year’s spending level.

Moreover, the president already has the biggest weapon at his disposal — the power to veto.

If the White House is really serious about curbing spending, the president can always use a veto threat to persuade or cajole or threaten the Congress to go along with his wishes. If he has the votes, he will get his way. And if not, the legislative branch will get its way. That’s the way the Founding Fathers intended it to be, and I think that system has been working very well for the last 200 years.

If this new expanded power were given to the president, he would have unprecedented power to bully Members of Congress — and control over the appropriations process.

While I don’t think that Obama would ever abuse that leverage, we have no idea what another president at another time might do with such expanded powers.

Finally, this proposal would take away the prerogative of the Congress to debate and deliberate in carrying out its constitutional responsibility to appropriate all money to be drawn from the Treasury. The “expedited” procedure would force the House leadership — faced with a rescission from the president — to introduce a resolution within four legislative days. Committees that usually spend the entire year investigating and thinking about how best to appropriate funds would then have only a handful of days to consider the president’s proposal, followed by only a few days for each chamber to vote on the bill.

And simply because the president has proposed the rescission of funding, the Office of Management and Budget could simply withhold that funding for an extended period of time — until the House and Senate have each been in session for 25 days. Given that over the past decade there have been years when one chamber or the other has been in session as few as 101 days in a whole year, 25 session days could translate to multiple months. OMB should not have the authority to sit on funds for an extended period of time like this, when the funding in question has been properly appropriated by Congress and signed into law by the president.

It’s worth pointing out that in other places where an executive enjoys line-item veto power, such as with the governor of California, there has not been a noticeable reduction in the deficit. What has happened instead is that the executive branch uses the new power as a cudgel against the legislature.

In short, I think in this instance the proposed solution creates more problems than it solves, and it’s my hope that this plan does not advance very far here in Congress.

Rep. Louise Slaughter (D-N.Y.) chairs the House Rules Committee.