Death by a Thousand Vetoes

If you think the president doesn?t have enough power, you?ll like this idea

Fight disinformation: Sign up for the free Mother Jones Daily newsletter and follow the news that matters.


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 lobby 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, to “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 bill. “This runs to the basic philosophy of Republicans.”

But this maneuver is a twofer. The spending control bill is in reality a Trojan horse for something worse–the line-item veto, which also is 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 endangered—essentially turning the torture ban to mush.

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

This has been tried before. The Supreme Court struck down a line-item veto bill in 1998, ruling it unconstitutional on grounds 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 he can propose a package of cancellations to Congress, which has to vote it up or down, without amendment or filibuster, within 14 days of the President’s submitting it. With a crafty president and a fractured Congress, how many of those fights will the legislative branch win?

We've never been very good at being conservative.

And usually, that serves us well in doing the ambitious, hard-hitting journalism that you turn to Mother Jones for. But it also means we can't afford to come up short when it comes to scratching together the funds it takes to keep our team firing on all cylinders, and the truth is, we finished our budgeting cycle on June 30 about $100,000 short of our online goal.

This is no time to come up short. It's time to fight like hell, as our namesake would tell us to do, for a democracy where minority rule cannot impose an extreme agenda, where facts matter, and where accountability has a chance at the polls and in the press. If you value our reporting and you can right now, please help us dig out of the $100,000 hole we're starting our new budgeting cycle in with an always-needed and always-appreciated donation today.

payment methods

We've never been very good at being conservative.

And usually, that serves us well in doing the ambitious, hard-hitting journalism that you turn to Mother Jones for. But it also means we can't afford to come up short when it comes to scratching together the funds it takes to keep our team firing on all cylinders, and the truth is, we finished our budgeting cycle on June 30 about $100,000 short of our online goal.

This is no time to come up short. It's time to fight like hell, as our namesake would tell us to do, for a democracy where minority rule cannot impose an extreme agenda, where facts matter, and where accountability has a chance at the polls and in the press. If you value our reporting and you can right now, please help us dig out of the $100,000 hole we're starting our new budgeting cycle in with an always-needed and always-appreciated donation today.

payment methods

We Recommend

Latest

Sign up for our free newsletter

Subscribe to the Mother Jones Daily to have our top stories delivered directly to your inbox.

Get our award-winning magazine

Save big on a full year of investigations, ideas, and insights.

Subscribe

Support our journalism

Help Mother Jones' reporters dig deep with a tax-deductible donation.

Donate