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News : Death by a thousand vetoes 

Scary Presidential Powers 2: the Line-Item Veto

Tucked away within a deficit-cutting bill aimed at decimating social welfare programs is a line-item veto proposal that would extend the President’s unilateral powers beyond the wildest dreams of the proponents of “unitary executive theory.”

This is a one-two punch by conservative Republicans who think they are on the comeback trail. First there is business-as-usual, which means balancing the budget on the backs of the poor. Having taken a black eye on their out-of-control spending and looking like a bunch of crooks in the lobbyist scandals, conservatives are making a great show of rallying around the flag of budget control, in an effort to, as the Washington Times hopefully puts it, “nearly balance the budget by 2012.”

“Most of our party came to Washington to control spending and we have not done that,” Judd Gregg, the right-wing senator from New Hampshire, said upon introducing the deficit-cutting bill. “This runs to the basic philosophy of Republicans.”

But this maneuver is a two-fer. The spending-control bill is, in reality, a Trojan horse for something worse — the line-item veto, which is also included in the legislation. Gregg, who chairs the Senate Budget Committee, would essentially allow the president to cherrypick items in a piece of appropriations legislation, block funding for things he doesn’t like, and challenge Congress to override him — always a remote prospect at times when Congress and the presidency belong to the same party. It’s another step toward making Congress a circus for the masses, with less and less authority to actually do anything.

Here is a real-world example of what this means: In the fight over Arizona Senator John McCain’s proposed torture ban last fall, Bush first tried to negotiate away tough legislative language at the staff level. Then he got Cheney to twist arms behind the scenes, arguing that the CIA’s operations would be placed in jeopardy if the ban were enacted. But being against torture is a popular political position, even when you don’t really mean it. And besides, the wily McCain had embedded his measure in a massive defense-appropriations bill. Whatever happened, Bush didn’t want to veto it. So Bush put on a show of giving in and McCain graciously accepted a compromise. The bill passed and was sent to the President’s desk for signing. At that point, Bush attached something called a “presidential signing statement” to the legislation, stating he could sidestep the measure if the nation’s security were endangeredessentially turning the torture ban to mush.

The line-item veto would have made things much easier for Bush: He could have simply raked through the appropriations bill, pulled out the torture ban and blocked it, then dared Congress to challenge him.

It’s been tried before. The Supreme Court struck down a line-item veto bill in 1998, ruling it unconstitutional on grounds that the law gave the president authority to change a law all by himself. The new legislation gets around the court decision because it does not allow the president to change appropriations laws; he can only block enactment of certain items in legislation for up to 90 days (which, depending on the circumstances and the time of the year, can mean until the end of the year, which is equivalent to killing them altogether). Then the president can propose a package of cancellations to Congress, which has to vote it up or down, without amendment or filibuster, within 14 days of his submitting it. With a crafty president and a fractured Congress, how many of those fights will the legislative branch win?

James Ridgeway is Mother Jones’s Washington bureau chief. This story originally appeared in Mother Jones.

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