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Vetoing a Sham

February 19, 1988

At last a prominent conservative has given some careful thought to the proposed presidential line-item veto, and has exposed it for the sham that it is. "This is an idea whose time hasn't come," columnist James J. Kilpatrick writes, noting that the gimmick originated in the Confederate States of America, which had a notably weak and impotent governing structure, and has been sought unsuccessfully by U.S. Presidents dating back to Ulysses S. Grant.

The line-item veto was embraced by President Reagan early on, and has been adopted by all of the Republican presidential candidates as part of conservative GOP gospel. As do they, Kilpatrick decries Congress' spend-happy ways, but says that the line-item veto is not the answer. Presidents have a number of tactics at hand for keeping Congresses in check, including deferral and recision of spending items and the power to veto entire appropriations bills.

Furthermore, Kilpatrick notes, major portions of the budget would be immune from the line-item veto--including Social Security, other entitlement programs and interest on the debt. But his major objection is the fundamental one that the veto would drastically alter the delicate balance of power that has existed in government for the past 200 years. "To grant the line-item veto would tilt the balance by giving Presidents more power than Presidents ought to have," he said.

In fact, the framers of the Constitution deliberately gave Congress the authority for making decisions about spending federal revenues as well as setting the course for policy. The line-item veto effectively would turn a basic clause of the Constitution on its ear. The veto would not just give Presidents control over spending levels, but would also allow them to arbitrarily alter the entire nature and purpose of federal programs. This is not what the framers wanted. If supporters of the line-item veto gave some careful thought to it, they might see the inherent danger in that, too.

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