Another Obama Legacy? The End of the Line-Item Veto

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Unmentioned in Obama's legacy is that he killed the line-item veto. While not having done so directly, Obama's presidency has ended this long-time Republican goal just as assuredly as if he had. The political and fiscal role reversals between the Congress and presidency - and between Republicans and Democrats - transpiring for twenty years, have culminated with this administration.

Twenty years ago, Republicans, armed the Contract with America, dramatically rode to Congressional majorities for the first time in decades. Prominent within that important document was a call for a line-item veto for the president.

The intent was to give a president power to eliminate wasteful federal spending with pinpoint accuracy. Instead of having to veto an entire bill, and risk shutting down all, or part of the government, a president would be able to stop particular provisions but leave a larger spending bill intact. This authority would reverse the "Hobson's Choice" that prevailed between Congress and a president. 

By 1994, Republicans had seen the situation play out all too often with Republican presidents. Two decades earlier, Congress' power of the purse had become all-powerful. Congressional Democratic majorities had forced an end to the Vietnam War by constricting funding and stopped Nixon in his attempts to rescind Congressional spending.

It is not hard to see why Republicans then viewed Congress as Democratic and the presidency as Republican. In 1994, Republicans had not controlled the House of Representatives since 1953-54, which was also the last time they had controlled both houses of Congress - a control lasting just two years. Other than that single Congress during Eisenhower's presidency, Republicans had only controlled the Senate for six years during Reagan's administration.

The presidency was an entirely different story. During the 40 years since they had last controlled Congress, Republicans had held the White House for 28 years. Democrats had just three administrations in that time and two of these - Carter in 1976 and Clinton in 1992 - had been more due to Republicans losing them, than Democrats winning them. Republicans had been undone, first by Watergate, and then by Perot's third-party candidacy splitting their base. To Republicans, two of their three losses could be seen as flukes.

Thus, pursuing a line-item veto that would allow a president (i.e., a Republican) to curtail Congress' (i.e., Democrats') excessive spending made absolute sense in 1994. Additionally, a vast majority of states gave their governor the same authority, so it was hardly novel and was undoubtedly effective.

Republicans passed the line-item veto in 1996 and President Clinton used it 82 times. Even when the Supreme Court overturned it in 1998, its theoretical attraction for Republicans did not die. They altered the proposed form to address the Court's objections, not their desire for it and President Bush requested it as recently as 2006.

Then came Obama. There have been twenty long years since the Contract with America. During those two decades, things have vastly changed in Washington - especially in the last six years. Congress and the president have swapped fiscal roles, as Republicans and Democrats have exchanged political power bases.

Gone is the view that the president is the defender of the budget and Congress the champion for increased spending. Under Obama, federal spending, as percentages of GDP, exploded to peacetime records and federal debt doubled as well. Additionally, Republicans believe Obama has improperly exercised executive authority across-the-board - going so far as to sue Obama over his health care executive actions.

The idea of giving Obama more authority - especially on fiscal matters - is likely unthinkable to Republicans today.

The fiscal landscape is reversed because the political one is equally so. Since 1994's Contract with America, Republicans have controlled the House of Representatives for 16 years; Democrats for just four years. In the Senate, Republicans have held control for just over half the time (10 years to 8, with the Senate split from 2001-03). In contrast by the time Obama's presidency finishes, Democrats will have a 2-1 advantage in controlling the White House - Clinton and Obama having 16 years in office versus Bush's eight.

With Republican control of Congress, legislative pressure for spending reductions has increased. With Democrat control of the White House, executive demands for greater spending have increased. Giving the president the line-item veto would actually give him greater leverage over Congress on spending - bargaining increases against threatened strikes at Congressional priorities. Such leverage could extend throughout the fiscal process - from taxes to debt limit - and into other policy areas too.

The Supreme Court's overturning of the line-item veto in 1998 was far less damaging to Republicans' perception of the line-item veto than Obama's presidency has been. This administration has also served to punctuate Washington's complete fiscal and political role reversal that has taken place over the last 20 years. With this reversal has come a complete Republican reappraisal of executive authority. While such transformations show all things political are malleable, it is hard to see Republicans changing their position on the line-item veto and granting greater executive authority in fiscal matters any time soon.


J.T. Young served in the Treasury Department and the Office of Management and Budget from 2001 to 2004, and as a congressional staff member from 1987 to 2000. 

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