Commentary

Line-Item Veto: “One of the Taxpayers’ Best Friends”

By Stephen Moore
March 12, 1998

“The line-item veto has shown itself to be one of the taxpayers’ best friends-and lord knows, taxpayers have far too few friends in Washington already,” the Cato Institute’s director of fiscal policy studies Stephen Moore told members of Congress Wednesday. He testified before the Subcommittee on the Budget Process of the House Rules Committee.

“In 1997, President Clinton used this new budget-cutting tool 82 times to delete unnecessary expenditures in 11 spending bills, saving a total of nearly $2 billion over five years,” Moore noted. “Virtually none of those projects served the national interest.” They included a $2 million dredging project in Alaska that would benefit a single tour boat operator.

Moore appended a list of two dozen federal projects that were not vetoed in last year’s appropriations bills but easily qualify as “pork-barrel” spending. “My complaint is not that Bill Clinton used this veto too recklessly-but too sparingly. The 1998 Energy and Water bill contained 423 unrequested projects — just about one in every district. Clinton canceled just 8 of them. Most of the other 415 deserved the same fate.”

The main problem with President Clinton’s use of the line-item veto so far has been a failure “to provide any coherent justification for why some projects have been terminated and others have passed muster,” Moore said. “Establishing clear standards of use is the best way to refute the charge that the line-item veto is being used capriciously.”

Moore reminded the subcommittee that far from being an unprecedented power shift in the direction of the White House, the line-item veto “partially restored the rightful authority of the executive branch that was improperly snatched away in a power grab by the post-Watergate Congress in 1974.” The Budget Act passed that year took away the president’s authority to impound funds, “a power that was exercised routinely by every president from Thomas Jefferson through Richard Nixon.”

And what should Congress do if the Supreme Court finds the present line-item veto law unconstitutional? “Fix the legislation immediately so it will pass constitutional muster. The line-item veto is not inherently unconstitutional. All that is being challenged is the legality of the procedures for the particular version passed in 1995.”

Stephen Moore’s testimony “The Line-Item Veto after One Year” can be found at the Cato Institute Web site

Stephen Moore is director of fiscal policy studies at the Cato Institute.