Monday, February 1, 2010

Line Dance

Governor Tim Pawlenty, Republican of Minnesota, who is testing the waters for a 2012 presidential candidacy, has written an article for Politico, regarding federal budget issues. Its publication is timed to coincide with President Obama's release of his fiscal year 2011 budget.

Pawlenty describes the massive growth in federal spending over many years, and the recent acceleration in that growth. He then makes several suggestions for cutting back on such spending.

If he goes forward with his candidacy, Pawlenty may be well placed to emphasize that issue. He has not served in Congress, and therefore took no part in the spending binge of the Republicans who controlled the political branches of the federal government from 2003 to 2006. His record as state legislator and governor would give him credibility as a fiscal conservative. And, if those congressional Republicans of that earlier time spent like drunken sailors, their record has been surpassed by the current Democratic-controlled Congress, whose members spend as though their blood-alcohol level were several times the legal limit.

One of Pawlenty's proposals is to give the president the same line-item veto power that most state governors possess. That is the power to veto parts of an appropriation bill, rather than either accepting or vetoing the entire bill.

The federal Constitution, in Article 1, Section 7, Clause 2, provides that:

Every Bill which shall have passed the House of Representatives and the Senate, shall, before it become a law, be presented to the President of the United States: If he approve he shall sign it, but if not he shall return it, with his Objections to that House in which it shall have originated ...

Here, on the other hand, is an example of a line-item veto provision in a state constitution (Pennsylvania):

The Governor shall have power to disapprove of any item of any bill, making appropriations of money, embracing distinct items, and the part or parts of the bill approved shall be the law, and the item or items of appropriation disapproved shall be void, unless re-passed according to the rules and limitations prescribed for the passage of other bills over the Executive veto.

I recall that, during the George H.W. Bush presidency (1989-93), some commentators suggested that Bush press a constitutional challenge by declaring certain line items in appropriation bills to be vetoed. Their point was that they considered the federal constitutional language to be flexible enough to allow for line-item veto, even without the specific language to that effect that appears in state constitutions. It would then have been up to the federal courts to sort the issue out. Bush declined to try that; perhaps, as a certain comedian would have phrased it, he was being prudent.

Bush's successor, Bill Clinton, signed a bill in 1996 that attempted to establish a line-item veto by congressional statute, rather than constitutional amendment. Two years later, the U.S. Supreme Court declared that statute unconstitutional, rejecting the argument I noted above, regarding the elasticity of the constitutional text.

That case settled the point that introduction of the line-item veto requires a constitutional amendment. Several versions of such an amendment have been introduced in Congress over the years. But the daunting requirements of a two-thirds supermajority in both houses of Congress, plus approval by three fourths of the state legislatures, have kept the concept from becoming reality.

While this issue has perhaps been pushed mostly by Republicans, presidents of both parties who had gubernatorial experience have advocated it. Republican President Ronald Reagan, who earlier had served eight years as governor of California, was one such advocate. As noted above, President Clinton, who was governor of Arkansas for 12 years, was the only president to use the line-item veto, during its short-lived existence in the 1990s.

Pawlenty, like Reagan and Clinton, has been used to having that power as governor, and it stands to reason that presidents and presidential candidates with such experience will be more likely to understand the rationale for the procedure.

It will be interesting to see whether the current concern about deficits and the growth of federal spending will produce the political will in Congress and the states to approve an amendment.

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