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Gary M. Galles - Contributor

Mr. Galles is a professor of economics at Pepperdine University. [go to Galles index]

Kerry And The Line-Item Veto
The Line-Item Veto and Fiscal Responsibility...

[Gary M. Galles] 8/13/04

In an effort to establish his fiscal responsibility bona fides, John Kerry has been touting support of a line-item veto (reworked to survive the court scrutiny that overturned it before), with rhetoric almost identical to that used when it was part of Republicans' 1994 Contract With America. He could "get the pork and the waste, and the throwaway, and the special-interest deals out of the system."

Unfortunately, however, while a president could use a line-item veto to rein in federal government expansion by cutting out budgetary pork, he could also use it to further expand government.

The line-item veto could shrink unnecessary government, in the hands of a president determined to use it for that purpose. It would work by eliminating the ability of those in Congress to deliver on their logrolling agreements. The president could void the legislative payoff to any party to a logrolling "contract," so there would be less incentive for Congress to create one. In particular, it would sharply erode the power of the current contract enforcers--committee and subcommittee chairmen--to make good on their reciprocal promises.

While a line-item veto could reduce Congressional pork, it would increase presidential pork. The President would become the only ultimate enforcer of Congressional negotiations, and so would have to be included in every logrolling agreement, giving him vastly increased leverage over legislation. And that leverage just as easily be used to grow government as shrink it, if he chose.

Using a line-item veto to grow government simply requires the President to threaten carefully targeted item vetoes, unless Congress passed his desired legislation. He could make every individual item in every bill that benefited any recalcitrant legislator disappear, unless he was given what he wanted. And that would expand the government whenever what he wanted was "more."

Despite claims that a president represents the people rather than special interests, a president has plenty of special interests. He wants to help swing constituencies and large states that will be competitive in the Electoral College, even at the expense of those whose votes are not so crucial. He would have the incentive to use his increased leverage to help states with "at risk" candidates from his party, and to punish those with similarly situated opponents. And the President has personal spending priorities, as well, such as Kerry's promise to make health care a right.

A line-item veto would also drastically change the power of Congressional minorities. When the President belongs to the minority party in Congress, it would give that party far more power over legislation, but if the President's party has a Congressional majority, a line-item veto would almost eliminate any minority party power. The minority's only power to advance their agenda is by making legislative deals in exchange for support of strongly favored policies, but their part of any such deals could always be voided by the President.

Is a line-item veto more likely to shrink or grow government in John Kerry's hands? He certainly has announced far more expansions than contractions so far. And its potential to increase budgets has not gone unnoticed by his party. For instance, in 1996, on "This Week With David Brinkley," Al Gore (echoed by other administration officials) said that Clinton would use the added bargaining power conferred by a line-item veto to restore benefits he didn't want cut by the historic welfare reform bill that was being forced on him after two vetoes.

Supporting a line-item veto seems like a good way to prove one's commitment to cut federal pork. But it only works that way with a president determined to make America more fiscally prudent. And it would also give more power to a president determined to grow the government further. Which would John Kerry be? The laundry list of new initiatives he has already promoted leaves that open to serious question. CRO

copyright 2004 Gary M. Galles




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