Over at Reason, Brian Doherty makes a case against the line-item veto. But it’s not a very good case. Referring to studies of how the line-item veto has worked at the state level, Doherty says “[t]he evidence is inconclusive, with overall effects on spending estimated to be either small, nonexistent, or dependent on situations where opposing parties control the two branches and the opposition is unable to overturn the governor’s vetoes.” Isn’t a “small” effect or one dependent on opposing parties occupying the legislative and executive branches still better than nothing?
The crux of Doherty’s argument, though, is this:
A presidential line-item veto would give presidents the less-benevolent power (which Clinton was thought to have tried to use at least once when he had it) to lean on individual legislators to get what they want. That is, the threat to kill a precious earmark in exchange for going along on some other matter. And in a political world where there are no meta-political ideological barriers to keep the executive or legislative branches of the federal government from spending on any old thing they please, a line-item veto could well merely shift the points of special-interest lobbying pressure from 535 saps to just one.
Would it really have that effect? No. Lobbyists would still need to bribe congressmen into putting their pork into the budget in the first place and voting it through. All the line-item would do is make it that much more imperative that lobbyists try to win over the executive branch’s sympathies as well. It makes their lives harder, in other words. That’s not a bad thing at all.
But one might take Doherty’s argument in another direction. Couldn’t a line-item veto actually increase spending, by allowing the president to threaten the earmarks of any congressman who refused to vote for a boondoggle, welfare extension, or war toy that the executive favored? It would have made it that much easier for Bush to get his prescription drug plan through Congress.
But then, Bush pushed the plan through anyway, even without the line-item power. The risk of the line item being used to marshal support for greater spending seems low.
The more opportunities there are to kill any item of federal spending, the better. There is no good pork. That the president may be a very bad man and use the line-item to inflict pain on relatively sweet and innocent congressmen is beside the point; no congressman playing the politics of pork deserves to be left alone. If the president slashes their spending for any reason, that should be applauded. And while one cannot ever be too skeptical of Republicans’ willingness to listen to the counsels of fiscal conservatives, the existence of the line-item veto would put that much more pressure on Republican presidents (in particular) to cut some spending.
Let’s also look at a few other benefits to the line-item veto: it could lead to more antagonism between the branches of government and when a president like Bush failed to cut absurd items from congressional appropriations, it would be even more clear to whatever limited-government voters might be left in the GOP coalition that the Republican leadership really is their enemy — about which, see the post below.
Doherty concedes that “undoubtedly the president could save some money for us here and there, as Clinton did and as state governors do on certain specific matters.” Unless there’s very good reason to think that presidents will be able to turn the veto around so as to use it to cajole support from Congress for higher spending, libertarians ought to support the trimming of any piece of pork. (Having said that, though, let’s be on guard about any Bush-sponsored “line-item veto” proposal, lest it be a Trojan horse for something else altogether.)