First, Josh Bolten, director of the Office of Management and Budget, may be exactly wrong when he says the veto would be a "deterrent'' because legislators would be reluctant to sponsor spending that was then singled out for a veto. It is at least as likely that, knowing the president can veto line items, legislators might feel even freer to pack them into legislation, thereby earning constituents' gratitude for at least trying to deliver.
Second, presidents would buy legislators' support on other large matters in exchange for not vetoing the legislators' favorite small items.
During the two-year life of the line-item veto, Vice President Gore promised that President Clinton would use the bargaining leverage it gave him to get legislators to increase welfare spending.
The line-item veto's primary effect might be political, and inimical to a core conservative value. It would aggravate an imbalance in our constitutional system that has been growing for seven decades -- the expansion of executive power at the expense of the legislature. This ongoing development has been driven by wars hot and cold, and by today's, which is without a foreseeable end.
Time, and perhaps the Supreme Court, will tell whether the president's proposed line-item veto -- Congress would have 10 days to ratify or oppose his proposed cancellations -- passes constitutional muster. Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C., thinks the president can unilaterally erase much "earmark'' spending -- $52.1 billion in fiscal 2005 -- by directing executive branch officials to ignore spending that is ordered by congressional committee reports but is not included in the text of the actual appropriation bills.
In any case, about 62 cents of every dollar the federal government spends automatically goes to entitlements (54 cents) and debt service (8 cents). Another 21 cents are for defense and homeland security. The line-item veto concerns the remaining 17 cents. That is not trivial:
Savings always come at the margin. California Gov. Ronald Reagan used his line-item veto to cut an average of 2 percent from spending bills. The governor of Texas from 1995 through 2000 used his line-item veto on bills totaling $265.1 billion -- cutting just .043 percent from those bills he said reflected his state's conservatism.