When President Donald Trump last week called for Congress to approve an executive “line-item veto,” it provoked convulsions among America’s Googletariat.
“Trump has a secret plan to evade the Constitution and create a line-item veto, apparently,” read a headline in the Washington Post. “Trump administration botches basic civics while calling for line-item veto,” wrote one of the Post’s “fact checkers.” MSNBC host Rachel Maddow’s blog mocked Trump for falling for a “misguided gimmick” pushed by congressional Republicans in the 1990s. “A quarter of a century later, it feels like we’re watching an episode of That ’90s Show,” snarked Maddow’s blog.
It would probably surprise former Democratic Wisconsin Sen. Russ Feingold and Democratic President Barack Obama that they were complicit in this mid-90’s Republican subterfuge. Because in the past, both have joined Republicans like current Speaker of the House Paul Ryan in proposing a version of the line-item veto they considered to be constitutional. (The idea is far from new; President Ulysses S. Grant first asked for the authority in the 1860s.)
Back in the 1990s, Congress passed a bill providing the president with a clean authority to veto specific spending items from legislation. President Bill Clinton signed the law, but the Supreme Court overturned it in 1998, arguing that allowing the president to unilaterally approve or deny programs constituted a violation of the separation of powers. The president must, according to the court, “approve all the parts of a bill, or reject it in toto.”
Since then, both Democrats and Republicans (and now Donald Trump, who is either depending on what cable news show he just watched) have been looking for a constitutional way to implement a line-item veto. They have primarily settled on a structure where the president, after signing a spending bill, could identify a number of pork-barrel programs to which he or she objected. Those items would then be sent back to Congress and put to a separate vote — if an item couldn’t withstand an open-air vote, it would be eliminated and the money initially intended for the program would be applied to deficit reduction.
In joining Feingold and Obama in pushing for this expanded veto authority, Ryan argued it was the best way to trim unnecessary spending tucked into massive bills. In the days of out-of-control earmarks, when the House and Senate had to vote on a final version of a spending bill, legislators were typically voting on a “conference report” — a non-amendable agreement between the two houses with myriad special spending projects packed in at the last minute. The president can only give the package a full thumbs’ up or down, regardless of how wasteful some of the spending hidden in the bill may be.
Aside from such a system being a recipe for scandal, Ryan and Feingold argued an altered line-item veto would shine some sunlight on wasteful spending tucked into massive bills. In a 1996 interview, Ryan said he hoped he could “embarrass things out of bills” by forcing individual votes on unnecessary projects.
The primary opponents of the line-item veto are legislative leaders, who need pork-barrel spending projects to buy votes from their members. As Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) fought against it when it was proposed by President George W. Bush. In 2006, then-Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said he likes “the line-item veto about like I like a bad sore throat.”
However, the Ryan-Feingold-Obama-Bush plan (at the time given the sexy name “The Expedited Line-Item Veto and Rescissions Act”) still allowed Congress to have final say on whether a program was approved. Further, it would grant the president lesser veto powers than 46 governors currently enjoy — that includes Wisconsin, where a governor can still strike full sentences and write in different spending amounts, creating new laws never intended by the Legislature.
An altered line-item veto wouldn’t be a panacea for solving government overspending. But exposing earmarks was a good idea then and still is now. Just because one version of the line-item veto has been struck down doesn’t mean there are aren’t other equally valuable, bipartisan options available – they’re just harder to Google than “Stupid Face Trump Dummy Supreme Court Line Item Veto Fathead.”