Line item veto at risk Court reversal: Quick Supreme Court decision needed as Congress works on budget.

April 21, 1997

ONLY THE SUPREME COURT has the authority to decide so grave a constitutional issue as whether Congress can delegate to the president the power to veto selected items in omnibus spending bills or special tax legislation.

Federal District Judge Thomas Penfield Jackson issued an eloquent ruling that the line item veto measure passed by the last Congress was unconstitutional. But he does not have the last word, nor should he.

This case presents a classic clash between legal theory under separation of power provisions of the Constitution and what is expeditious in actually governing the country.

For more than a century, presidents have tried to find ways to eliminate pork in huge appropriation bills. But it was not until federal deficit spending spun out of control, quintupling the national debt, that the drive for a line item veto bill prevailed on Capitol Hill. It would give presidents five days in which to veto items that would then become law only by a two-thirds vote in each house of Congress.

Although the Clinton White House professed disappointment over Judge Jackson's ruling, there really was no reason for surprise. During maneuvering prior to passage of the legislation, even line-item proponents saw constitutional risk in the House approach that finally prevailed. The Senate favored a legally impregnable approach -- one that would break up huge money and tax measures into hundreds of separate bills that would go to the president under usual legislative rules. But the House found this procedure much too cumbersome and insisted on a more streamlined formula.

The line item veto bill is not the first time Congress has tried to get something done by delegating authority to the executive branch or to quasi-executive commissions. The military base closing commission gave individual legislators needed political cover when home-district installations had to be shut down; so, too, with the commission that put in unpopular Social Security reforms. But presidential power to pick and choose from among the provisions of an act of Congress marks a quantum legal jump. There is an implication that if this can be done with spending or taxes, why not with environmental or civil rights or other laws?

A Supreme Court decision, rendered quickly so Congress can get on its with budget chores, is imperative. Because deficit reduction is so important, a reversal of Judge Jackson's ruling would be welcome. But if his thinking prevails, Congress should adopt alternative rules that can pass constitutional muster.

Pub Date: 4/21/97

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