Line-item vetoes won’t cut spending

by on March 7, 2006 at 7:29 am in Political Science | Permalink

Bush is asking for this authority, but it is unlikely to constrain spending.  Read this (JSTOR) paper "Line-Item Veto: Where Is Thy Sting?".  Excerpt: "Curiously, there exists little empirical support for the presumption that item-veto authority is important."

Or here is Robert Reischauer:

The crux of my message is that the item veto would have little effect on total spending and the deficit. I will buttress this conclusion by making three points. First, since the veto would apply only to discretionary spending, its potential usefulness in reducing the deficit or controlling spending is necessarily limited. Second, evidence from studies of the states’ use of the item veto indicates that it has not resulted in decreased spending; state governors have instead used it to shift states’ spending priorities. Third, a Presidential item veto would probably have little or no effect on overall discretionary spending, but it could substitute Presidential priorities for Congressional ones [TC: Hmm…].

Reischauer cites work by Douglas Holtz-Eakin:

Governors in 43 states [circa 1992] have the power to remove or reduce particular items that are enacted by state legislatures. The evidence from studies of the use of the item veto by the states, however, indicates no support for the assertion that it has been used to reduce state spending.

I have one simple model in mind: the legislature comes up with more individual pieces of pork in the first place.  Can you think of others?

1 joshg March 7, 2006 at 8:06 am

congressmen and interest groups lobby the president the way interest groups lobbs congressmen.

2 Robert Schwartz March 7, 2006 at 9:05 am

I do not know if the states are a good labratory or not. They do not have the ability to run unplanned deficits. OTOH, as proposed, the line item veto is a clumsy tool. Of course, the portion of deficit created by discretionary spending is trivial compared to the portion driven by entitlements.

3 John Thacker March 7, 2006 at 10:58 am

Yes, almost all states (except Vermont) do not have the ability to run unplanned deficits. Some states do not allow deficits to be run retrospectively, even if not planned for. That does significantly reduce spending. Hard to say what a line item veto does without it.

Of course, examining actual use of the line item veto may be unclear. It is possible that it could reduce spending without being used, simply via the threat of being used. There could just be fewer items put in the budget, and then it not be used, and this look, first-order, like it had no effect. When 43 states all have the line-item veto, it’s probably difficult to actually measure the difference between having it or not having it. The number of things actually vetoed by the line-item veto may be a poor proxy for the number of things prevented by it, if things are never proposed.

It’s also possible that the governor merely uses the threat to get his own pork passed, and becomes part of the negotiating team. Or that he vetoes proposals by his opponents, etc.

4 John Thacker March 7, 2006 at 12:30 pm

“Seems to me that if “line item veto” does not include “line item additions” then there is no downside risk.”

Well, hypothetically the President could say to Congress “I will line item veto projects X, Y, and Z unless you also pass my pet project A.”

5 anon March 7, 2006 at 1:15 pm


the line-item veto for the fed govt (president), at this current point in time, strikes me as a power grab.

has bush ever vetoed anything of any kind?

6 Mark Rafn March 7, 2006 at 3:52 pm

In the current legislative model, doesn’t the blanket veto make the line-item veto irrelevant? The president can (and does, occasionally) say “I’ll veto this if it includes Y”. To the extent that he has any credibility (no comment), congress will leave Y out if they want it to pass.

The line-item veto just moves this negotiation one level. Congress now has to say “don’t veto X if you want us to pass Z later”.

I can see how line-item vetos matter in one-shot prisoner’s dilemma situations. I can’t understand how it’s supposed to help in the repeated case where communication and dealing is allowed.

I _DO_ see the value of congress requiring itself to split out appropriations and vote on them separately. It would make deal-making much harder to do in secret. And it effectively gives the prez a line-item veto with no additional constitutional questions.

7 Nathan Zook March 8, 2006 at 10:28 am

Ahh, but there is an important difference. The president is one man, and if he campaigns on a platform of using the line-item veto to cut pork, then he has a significant reason to carry out his campaign. An individual congresscritter, OTOH, especially early on (when more likely to make such a promise) has little power to enact such a promise, and far less accountability to the public.

State government generally receives far less attention than federal, so the lack of results at the state level (which, as mentioned above, would be extraordinarily difficult to prove) cannot be fairly extrapolated to the national level.

8 Josh March 8, 2006 at 2:12 pm

Some other models… One model is that the legislature includes the governor in their log rolling. He agrees to not veto their line item in exchange for them passing one of his spending priorities. These increases make up for the vetoes he actually makes.

The governor might agree not to veto in exchange for changes non-spending changes in the law. So the governor gets his limits on selling sudafed in exchange for a non-veto.

Another is that they reshape the pork to better fit the governor’s pet projects or constituents. For example the legislators want to please construction companies and unions and the governor wants to please an area with a lot of swing voters. So an unnecessary highway is built in that area instead of another.

Finally perhaps additional spending is diverted into areas where the legislature exerts control more surreptitiously. For example a park building commission might be have it’s members chosen by the legislature. The legislature would “over” fund the parks and the building commission would feed pork to powerful members districts.

More generally maybe there is some level of waste that the body politic tolerates. The line item veto crowd might hold that people can better express this outrage through a governor because his race is better popularized. But whether because of the larger number of voters or by some other mechanism this doesn’t happen. Since their outrage doesn’t actually effect the outcome of a governor’s race, the level of waste remains the same.

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