WASHINGTON – Six years after the Supreme Court took away the president's ability to veto specific parts of legislation, President Bush (search) is asking Congress to bring back the line-item veto (search) to let him make precision strikes against projects and tax provisions he doesn't like.
At a news conference after his re-election, Bush said he wanted a line-item veto that "passed constitutional muster," explaining it would help him work with lawmakers "to make sure that we're able to maintain budget discipline."
Presidents have been saying similar words since the first line-item veto proposal was introduced in the 1870s. It wasn't until 1996, when the new Republican majority in the House made the tool part of its "Contract With America," (search) that Congress responded.
President Clinton happily signed the legislation, and in 1997 he used his new power 82 times to negate specific projects in larger spending bills. Congress overrode his veto 38 times, although it still resulted in savings of almost $2 billion.
Clinton singled out for elimination programs that, detractors said, benefited a single tour boat operator in Alaska, or dredged a Mississippi lake that primarily served yachts and pleasure boats.
Two of the losers, New York City and Idaho potato growers, went to court, however, and in 1997 the Supreme Court ruled on a 6-3 vote that the law gave the president unconstitutional unilateral power to change laws enacted by Congress.
The nation returned to what is now current law: The president signs or vetoes spending or tax bills in their entirety; he cannot eliminate items within the bills.
The line-item veto helps restrain excessive spending, said Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, but "failure of political will does not justify unconstitutional remedies."
Opponents said the law seriously eroded Congress' power over the purse and tilted the Constitution's system of checks and balances dangerously in favor of the executive branch.
"It is a malformed monstrosity, born out of wedlock," thundered Sen. Robert Byrd of West Virginia, the senior Democrat on the Senate Appropriations Committee and a staunch defender of the rights of the legislative branch.
With the court ruling and the return of budget surpluses during Clinton's presidency, the line-item issue faded away. As deficits reappeared and mounted to record levels under Bush, the issue also reappeared.
The administration has put language in its annual budget proposals that encourage another look at the line-item veto. White House Budget Director Josh Bolten (search) told the Senate Budget Committee this year that the administration hopes to work with Congress to draft legislation that would stand up to constitutional scrutiny.
"We hope the president has the political courage to follow through on this," said David Williams, spokesman for Citizens Against Government Waste (search), a leading advocate of the line-item veto as a means to rein in government spending. "This could be one of his legacies."
Williams said a new proposal could be written in a manner that would avoid the constitutional challenge that sank the last measure. Others say the Constitution must be amended to make the line-item veto legal.
A constitutional amendment has been proposed by Sen. Elizabeth Dole, R-N.C., whose husband, former Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole, R-Kan., was a chief sponsor of the 1996 measure with Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz.
Rep. Bob Andrews, D-N.J., who has a similar constitutional amendment proposal in the House, said he thought Bush's statement could give impetus to legislative action.
It's not a Republican versus Democratic issue, Andrews said. It's "appropriations people against the rest of us. They jealously guard their ability to put projects in bills. Some are justifiable, some aren't."
David Skaggs, a former Democratic congressman from Colorado, led the opposition in the House to the 1996 bill. He said it would be foolhardy now for Congress to pass legislation that would produce a "huge shift in power to the presidency" and open possibilities of abuse. He saw the possibility that lawmakers, to protect a project in their district, could be pressured to support a White House policy they otherwise opposed.
"The answer is self-discipline on the part of Congress, not derogating its central power," said Skaggs, now head of the Center for Democracy and Citizenship at the Council for Excellence in Government (search).