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Judge Rules Line-Item Veto Authority Unconstitutional

By Joan Biskupic
and Stephen Barr
The Washington Post

A federal judge Thursday declared President Clinton's line-item veto authority unconstitutional. The decision opens the way for a definitive Supreme Court ruling on Congress' historic move in 1996 to give the president more control over spending.

U.S. District Judge Thomas F. Hogan said the law - allowing the president to cancel funds for individual programs within an appropriations bill - violates the Constitution's requirement that the president sign or veto bills in their entirety. He said it also gives the president part of Congress' lawmaking role.

"Although the Line Item Veto Act may have presented an innovative and effective manner in which to control runaway spending by Congress, the [Constitution's] Framers held loftier values," Hogan wrote in an opinion.

President Clinton said he was disappointed with Hogan's decision. But he predicted the Supreme Court would uphold the law. Clinton said it has "worked well," saving taxpayers more than $1 billion since taking effect in 1997.

The line-item veto was a cornerstone of the House GOP's "Contract With America." And in the Senate, key supporters Dan Coats, R-Ind., and John McCain, R-Ariz., argued that the law would give the president a way to thwart wasteful spending that Congress could not find the will to stop. Clinton campaigned for the presidency in 1992 as a supporter of the veto.

McCain said Thursday he believed the law would ultimately be upheld because, "while no other branch of government can usurp Congress' authority, the Congress itself can delegate that authority."

But congressional opponents of the veto hailed Hogan's ruling in two consolidated cases and predicted that it would be affirmed.

Sen. Robert C. Byrd, D-W.Va., said the ruling was a "victory for the American people" because "it is their Constitution, their Republic and their liberties that have been made more secure."

Rep. C.W. "Bill" Young, R-Fla., chairman of the House defense appropriations subcommittee, said Congress erred by trying to give the president more budget power through a statute. "To make it really binding would require a constitutional amendment," Young said.

In his first budget season with the power, Clinton cast 82 line-item vetoes. But after angering lawmakers by canceling 38 military construction projects, Clinton slowed the pace of the vetoes and then drew criticism that he was leaving billions of dollars of special interest or hometown pork untouched.

The Justice Department will ask the Supreme Court for a quick review of Hogan's decision. The high court could make a decision by the end of June.

The action would mark the second time for the line-item veto at the Supreme Court. On its first review, in June, the justices never reached the law's merits because the six members of Congress who had challenged the act lacked legal "standing" to bring the case.

In the decision Thursday, Hogan said the current two sets of challengers plainly have standing. New York City, two hospital associations and other related groups objected to Clinton's cancellation of a budget provision. Because of Clinton's veto, New York faced the prospect of sorting out $2.6 billion in disputed Medicaid payments and related taxes and returning some of them to the federal government.

The other case, brought by Idaho potato growers, arose from the president's veto of a capital-gains tax break for farmer cooperatives nationwide. One cooperative were negotiating to buy a processing plant, but the deal dissolved when the seller realized the veto would cause him to pay an increased tax.

Hogan observed that the Constitution requires both chambers of Congress to vote and then send a bill to the president for action, either approval or rejection. He said the president cannot "single-handedly revise" the work of Congress.

The administration called the line-item veto merely an extension of the president's authority not to spend money as dictated by appropriations bills. It had argued that because the line-item veto act requires the president only to "cancel" funding, it does not truly authorize him to "veto" anything.

But Hogan flatly rejected that defense and others.

"The court does not follow [the administration's] logic. Whatever [administration officials] wish to call the president's action, it has every mark of a veto," he said.