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Sunday, October 21, 2007

Constitutional Restraints on Presidential Power over the Budget

I am not a fan of the line item veto, so I find myself in rare agreement with George Will who wishes that Republican candidates understood the constitutional restraints on presidential power:

Line-Item Foolishness, by George F. Will, Commentary, Washington Post: Mitt Romney ... faults Rudy Giuliani for opposing the presidential line-item veto. But Giuliani doesn't, unfortunately. The facts -- not that they loom large in this skirmish -- are:

When in 1997 Bill Clinton used the line-item veto, with which Congress had just armed him, to cancel $200 million for New York state, Giuliani harried Clinton all the way to the Supreme Court. It agreed with Giuliani that the line-item veto was an unconstitutional violation of the "presentment" clause. Today, Giuliani says ... he favors amending the Constitution to give presidents such a veto, thereby substantially augmenting what should not be further augmented -- presidential power...

Forty-three governors have, and most presidents have coveted, the power to have something other than an all-or-nothing choice when presented with appropriations bills. ... But were a president empowered to cancel provisions of legislation, what he would be doing would be indistinguishable from legislating. He would be making, rather than executing, laws, and the separation of powers would be violated. Furthermore, when presidents truncated bills by removing items, they often would vitiate the will of Congress. ...

The line-item veto expresses liberalism's faith in top-down government... Liberalism assumes that executive branch experts, free from parochial constituencies, know, as Congress does not, what is good for the nation "as a whole." This is contrary to the public philosophy of James Madison's "extensive" republic with its many regions and myriad interests.

If Romney thinks a line-item veto would be a major force for federal frugality, he is mistaken. Gov. Reagan used his line-item veto to trim, on average, only about 2 percent from California's budgets. And much larger proportions of state budgets than of the federal budget are susceptible to such vetoes. ...

And the line-item veto might result in increased spending. Legislators would have even less conscience about packing the budget with pork, because they could get credit for putting in what presidents would be responsible for taking out. Presidents, however, might use the pork for bargaining, saying to individual legislators: If you support me on this and that, I will not veto the bike path you named for your Aunt Emma.

After a century of the growth of presidential power and after eight years of especially aggressive assertions of presidential prerogatives, it would be unseemly to intensify this tendency with a line-item veto. Conservatives used to be the designated worriers about the evolution of the presidency into the engine of grandiose government. They should visit the Rotunda for the Charters of Freedom in the National Archives building on Constitution Avenue. There the Constitution is displayed under four large glass plates. Almost half of the glass is required to cover just Article One. That concerns the legislative branch, which is the government's "first branch" for a reason.

A polite assessment of Romney's -- and Giuliani's -- enthusiasm for a line-item veto would resemble a 19th-century scholar's assessment of a rival's translation of Plato: "The best translation of a Greek philosopher which has ever been executed by a person who understood neither philosophy nor Greek."

Romney is explicit about his belief that the executive branch needs to become more powerful. This is from his economic plan:

BLUEPRINT #13: Giving The President Additional Flexibility To Cut Taxes: Governor Romney Proposes Giving The Executive Branch The Authority To Spend Up To 25% Less Than Congress Appropriates. Governor Romney believes the President has an important role to play in the budget process, but that Presidential authority has been unjustifiably curbed in recent decades. With the proliferation of earmarks and with Congress unwilling to make tough spending choices, it is clear we need to re-insert the President into the budget process. The amount of money Congress tells the President to spend should be a spending ceiling, not a final price tag.

He wants this power in addition to a line-item veto. I get the impression these guys don't want to be president where they have to deal with the constitutional restraints on their power, they want to be king. We all know Bush failed because his powers were severely limited by the Republican congress (the way he wielded that veto pen during those years was incredible!). Maybe they should just buy themselves a sovereign island somewhere, declare themselves king of everything within their realm, and leave the rest of us to struggle with our inferior constitutional democracy.

    Posted by on Sunday, October 21, 2007 at 11:43 AM in Budget Deficit, Economics, Politics | Permalink  TrackBack (1)  Comments (16)

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    » The Line Item Veto: EconomistsView from The Deaf Claque

    This is a good blog post by economist Mark Thoma. It examines the constitutionality of the line item veto and cites Line-Item Foolishness, by George F. Will from WaPo. []Were a president empowered to cancel provisions of le... [Read More]

    Tracked on Monday, October 22, 2007 at 10:11 AM


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