Line-Item Veto (Update)

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The Line Item Veto Act of 1996 authorized the President to cancel in whole any dollar amount of discretionary budget authority (appropriations), any item of new direct spending (entitlements), and any limited tax benefit. Unlike the item veto available to forty-three governors, this measure did not allow the President to cancel items in bills presented to him. Only after signing a bill into law could the President exercise the cancellation authority, and he had to do that within five days. Congress could pass a bill disapproving the cancellations, but the President could veto that bill. Congress would then need a two-thirds majority in each chamber to override the veto.

president william j. clinton canceled eighty-two items, all of them appearing in appropriations bills except for one item of direct spending and two items of limited tax benefits. The seventy-nine appropriation items totaled $477 million, a tiny percentage of the $526 billion appropriated in those bills. After Congress successfully reversed the cancellation of thirty-eight military construction projects ($287 million), the net reduction in appropriations was only $190 million. The three nonappropriation items amounted to $225 million, but the administration conceded that Clinton lacked authority to cancel one involving the federal retirement system.

Senator Robert C. Byrd and several colleagues challenged the constitutionality of the Line Item Veto Act. In Raines v. Byrd (1997), the Supreme Court ruled that the legislators lacked standing to bring the suit. A year later, the Court accepted a case from private parties who had been denied federal assistance because of Clinton's cancellations. In Clinton v. City of New York (1998), the Court held that the act violated the lawmaking procedures established by the Constitution, especially the presentment clause that requires that all bills and resolutions be presented to the President for his signature or veto. Congress, said the Court, could not authorize the President to repeal parts of a statute.

Writing for a 6–3 majority, Justice john paul stevens acknowledged that Congress in previous years had authorized the President to suspend certain statutory provisions in the field of international trade. He argued that those statutes "all relate to foreign trade," suggesting that the issue was not merely procedural (presentment clause) but possibly substantive as well (foreign versus domestic affairs).

Stevens said that if Congress wanted to give the President item-veto authority, it would have to act by constitutional amendment, not by statute. However, several of the dissenters identified line-item options that would have no problems under the presentment clause. Justice antonin scalia pointed out that Congress could direct the President to spend "not in excess" of certain amounts, allowing the President not to spend anything. In a separate dissent, Justice stephen g. breyer said that Congress could direct the President to carry out certain programs unless he issued a certification that the program not take effect. In 1995, the U.S. senate passed a version of line-item authority that would not raise presentment problems either. Under a procedure called "separate enrollment," Congress could break the large appropriations bills into individual items and present each one to the President. Thus, despite the Court's opinion, the item-veto issue might return under a different name.

Louis Fisher

(see also: Veto Power.)


Devins, Neal E. 1997 In Search of the Lost Chord: Reflections on the 1996 Item Veto Act. Case Western Reserve Law Review 47:1605–1642.

Fisher, Louis 1997 Line Item Veto Act of 1996: Heads-up from the States. Public Budgeting & Finance 17:3–17.

Jost, Kenneth 1997 Line-Item Veto: Can It Control Wasteful Federal Spending? CQ Researcher 7:529–552.

Joyce, Philip G. and Reischauer, Robert D. 1997 The Federal Line-Item Veto: What Is It and What Will It Do? Public Administration Review 57:95–104.