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The Line Item Vetoed: Supreme Court Decision Safeguards Constitution, Citizens

Michael J. Ring

Two hundred and twenty-two years ago, our founding fathers met in Philadelphia to forge a new nation, to chart a new direction for the people of the colonies. Frustrated with their lack of representation in the British parliament and viewing King George III as a tyrant, these wise men threw off the British yoke and proclaimed our independence.

Eleven years later, many of the same leaders once again gathered in Philadelphia, this time to draft a new government for the fledgling nation. Mindful of the lessons they learned from years of British rule and still fearful of a tyrannical government, the framers of our Constitution separated the powers of government between three branches.

The longest article of the Constitution, Article I, discusses the powers and responsibilities of the legislative branch of the new government. Contained within these words is a long list of powers given exclusively to the Congress. It is the Congress which has the power to declare war. It is the Congress which may borrow or coin money. It is the Congress which may regulate foreign or interstate commerce. No other branch of the government is given so many specific duties and responsibilities specifically through the Constitution.

Over much of the first century of our nation, the Congress was indeed the most active and powerful branch of the government. Many early presidents were hesitant to use the veto and deferred to the judgement of the Congress. The delicate balance of power, however, has been sliding away from the representatives of the people for almost 100 years. One of the unmistakable trends in the American politics of the twentieth century is the shift of the balance of power from the legislative branch to the executive branch. Since the rough rider Theodore Roosevelt assumed presidential power in 1901, most of our nation's chief executives have been active and aggressive in government while searching for avenues by which to expand the power of their office. Liberals such as Franklin D. Roosevelt and conservatives such as Ronald Reagan have all pursued policies and decisions which increased the power of the executive branch of our government.

Last month, six men and women of the Supreme Court, the body created by the framers to interpret that document on which the government was to be executed, recognized and preserved the original intent of our founders. Their decision, which should be a source of rejoicing for all Americans who declare a love for the Constitution, has rendered the line-item veto illegal.

The majority found that the line-item veto violated the presentment clause of the Constitution, which states that every bill presented to the President shall be approved or disapproved by him. Nowhere in this clause does it state the chief executive may accept part of the bill presented to him but veto another section. Instead, it implies the President must either accept the whole bill as law or veto the entire bill. The majority of the Supreme Court wisely ruled that to give the President that power would be an unconstitutional breach of the intent of our nation's founders.

A concurring opinion by Justice Anthony Kennedy is even more clairvoyant in realizing the intent of our nation's Constitution. It is yet more vigilant in recognizing and preserving the original meaning of our Constitution.

Justice Kennedy, in his opinion, was especially concerned with the separation of powers. "Liberty is always at stake when one or more of the branches seek to transgress the separation of powers," wrote the justice. The violation of liberty in this instance was especially egregious, since the House of Representatives, the body which was most zealous over putting the line-item veto into law, was intended to be the body of government closest to the people.

The line-item veto took important powers out of an assembly of hundreds of people and shifted them to one person, a person who rules over 260 million others. To concentrate so much power, through the line-item veto or other means, in the executive branch is indeed a dangerous trend in our government. Democracy is weakened with so much power in the hands of one single person. Do we not call other nations with powerful executives and puppet legislatures tyrannies? Fortunately we are far from tyranny in America, but we must be ever observant to prevent one branch of the government, particularly the executive branch, from gaining too much power.

Justice Kennedy also scolded those in Congress who were so eager to give up their constitutional responsibilities. "Failure of political will does not justify unconstitutional remedies," he told the American people. "Abdication of responsibility is not part of the constitutional design," he further wrote. It is the responsibility of the Congress to draft bills; it is the Congress that must decide whether to attach or kill various appropriations amendments which some would consider "pork."

The current leaders of Congress, who believed so strongly in the line-item veto they put it in the "Contract with America" four years ago, would be well-advised to heed the counsel of Justice Kennedy and either take action to cut pork themselves or stop blaming other representatives and senators for wasteful spending while doing little themselves to control the purse.

Those who disagree with the Supreme Court's ruling fear that the repeal of the line-item veto will result in an increase in wasteful government spending, and they may be proven right. But a pork barrel project here and there is a small price to pay for the preservation of our liberty and the integrity of our great Constitution.