Politics & Policy

A Line Goes Through It

One simple solution for POTUS -- and the rest of us.

In order to cut government waste, Congress should give the president a line-item veto. If approved, this type of authority would let the president send special-interest tax and spending provisions back to Congress without having to veto an entire bill.

The president must have this authority for one simple reason: Under our current budget process, members of Congress can often slip pet programs or projects into massive appropriations bills that fund necessary, ongoing government operations. Few members of Congress, after all, would oppose the Department of the Interior’s nearly $10 billion budget because they don’t want to spend $350,000 for flower baskets in Chicago or stand against the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s almost $35 billion budget to deny a $550,000 grant to a glass museum in Tacoma, Washington. Under current law, however, most members have no real choice.

Partly as a result, Congress has a hard time eliminating unnecessary spending. The Office of Management and Budget, indeed, reports that over a quarter of all federal programs either do not work or can’t show any evidence that they do. Another 28 percent receive “adequate” ratings (indicating problems) while a mere 15 percent set and achieve the ambitious goals needed to earn OMB’s highest rating.

A bill that I’ve introduced along with Senators John McCain (R., Ariz.), John Kerry (D., Mass.), and 25 others, would begin to remedy this situation. Under the proposal, the president could periodically send Congress lists of projects, activities, and narrow tax benefits he feels don’t serve the national interest. After the president submits it, both houses of Congress would have to vote the package as a whole.

The line-item veto has proven its worth in the states. In all, 43 state governors have some version of it. State legislators from both parties agree that it’s a useful tool. In 1996, furthermore, Congress gave President Clinton a line-item veto that he used 11 times to strike a total of 82 items. In all, those vetoes reversed a total of $869 million in spending hikes and narrow tax breaks. In 1998, however, the Supreme Court struck down that version of the line-item veto as unconstitutional on the basis that it gave the president too much authority that belonged to Congress. To accommodate this concern, the new version of the line-item veto requires Congress to approve the vetoed list. With this modification, I believe that the bill will pass constitutional muster.

While this legislation will give the president a valuable tool, the line-item veto will not solve our long-term fiscal challenges by itself.  Over half of all federal spending, in fact, takes place under entitlement programs such as Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security. While the president could use the veto to stop expansions of these programs, he or she couldn’t affect the growth of existing benefits. Instead, it will require congressional action to reduce the rate of growth in entitlement programs. Without it, these programs will come to consume resources we could otherwise devote to defense, homeland security, education, scientific research, and dozens of other vital national priorities. Getting spending under control, in other words, will take many changes in the way our nation does business. Restoring the president’s line-item veto authority, however, would be a good start. 

Bill Frist is the U.S. Senate Majority Leader.


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