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Still with the line-item hokum

By Jonathan Bernstein

Via the Hill, it seems that Barack Obama is moving ahead with his request to Congress for new budget procedures similar to the old line-item veto, which turned out to be unconstitutional.

As those who hang out over at my regular digs know, the key thing about such nostrums is that they have nothing at all to do with either cutting spending or balancing the budget. Nothing. I wouldn't go quite so far as to say that further procedural reform is irrelevant to budget-balancing --- I'm not sure about that. I do think that rigging the rules against increased deficits may in fact help achieve that goal, although Congress can always find away around such rules if they want to. That's been done, with PAYGO.

Variations on the line-item veto, however, don't stack the deck in favor of balanced budgets. Instead, such rules simply give the president a new weapon in his battle with Congress. It's true that the plan Obama is pushing is "one-way" in that it can only be used directly for cuts, not for increases. But that's just direct effects. A president who wants, say, new funding for health care or warfare, or slashed taxes for rich or for poor, can use the threat of a line-item veto to pressure members of Congress into voting for his budget-busting proposals. And given that the line-item proposal would only apply to discretionary spending, and not to taxes or entitlement spending, it hardly has much of a capacity to do anything significant in direct spending cuts, anyway.

Most likely, if this procedure was established, it would just be used as a shell game, anyway -- members of Congress would include a few ugly items into appropriations bills (authorship murky, please), the president would get to sign the bill (credit to Congress and the president for the good stuff!), and then he would propose and Congress would vote for the measure to strip out the "pork" (credit for killing the bad stuff!). To the extent that it did anything beyond that, however, what it's about is transferring influence from the Hill to the White House, not biasing the process against spending.

Jonathan Bernstein blogs about American politics, political institutions and democracy at A Plain Blog About Politics, and you can follow him on Twitter here.

By Washington Post editor  |  May 25, 2010; 10:00 AM ET
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Good morning Ezra,

The California Constitution require a 2/3 majority to pass a budget, meaning you always need the minority (e.g. Republicans) to sign off... and there's no procedural gimmiks like with the federal filibuster in the Senate. On top of that, my fair state has had a Republican governor for 24 of the last 27 years, with a very powerful line-item veto, and it certainly hasn't helped our budget.

Just sayin'

Posted by: Jaycal | May 25, 2010 11:07 AM | Report abuse

We have to watch out for a system that encourages more spending on the premise that it can be stripped out later, and that the political cost can be pushed onto the White House.

Posted by: jduptonma | May 25, 2010 11:21 AM | Report abuse

"what it's about is transferring influence from the Hill to the White House"

That may not be a bad thing in itself. You'd have a hard time convincing me that Congress is a more accountable and well functioning institution than the Presidency.

Posted by: Modicum | May 25, 2010 1:17 PM | Report abuse

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