Congress' frivolous ways Line-item veto: Supreme Court vote means members, not president, must rein in pork-barrel spending.

June 28, 1998

CONGRESS can't abuse the Constitution just to solve a political problem of its own making. That is the gist of the Supreme Court's logic in tossing out the 2-year-old line-item veto lawmakers had given to the president to help dampen overzealous congressional spending.

The law's objective was sound, but its application sharply altered the balance of power between executive and legislative branches. Congress ceded to the president huge new authority to shape legislation to his wishes.

He could reject spending provisions he found objectionable, while accepting other sections of budget bills.

That's not how it is supposed to work. The Constitution makes it clear that the president has to sign or veto a bill in toto. Otherwise, the chief executive crosses the line into legislating by reshaping measures already passed by the House and Senate.

Presidents since Ulysses S. Grant have been seeking just such power so they could excise objectionable pork-barrel projects from larger appropriations bills. It took this decade's deficit crisis for Congress to agree to such a procedure.

But this is a congressional, not presidential, problem. Congress was admitting it could not muster the courage to kill off wasteful spending. So it dumped the matter on the president.

Justice Anthony M. Kennedy aptly summed up the weakness of this approach: "Failure of political will does not justify unconstitutional remedies."

There is a practical alternative: a law that separates omnibus appropriations measures into thousands of separate bills. The president would consider each bill individually, just as the Constitution requires.

This might prove cumbersome initially, which is why the House resisted this approach previously. But if Republicans are serious about giving the president greater power to hold down spending, they have a responsibility to resurrect an improved version of the line-item veto. Otherwise, they must find the will to impose greater fiscal discipline on themselves.

Pub Date: 6/28/98

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