The Founding Fathers were fully aware of what they were doing when they placed the power of the purse almost exclusively with Congress. They wanted to make absolutely sure that the power of the President (any President) could never get so strong as to dominate our system of government. They had had enough of kings.
They never wanted to risk the possibility that our government could, under any circumstances, develop into an imperial form of government. Therefore, they separated the President's power of the sword from Congress' power of the purse. The power of the purse was placed firmly with Congress because our founders wanted it to serve as the ultimate check on the President.
As you know, Congress has now drastically changed the situation by passing the line-item veto, which was signed by the President on April 9. It becomes effective in January 1997. This legislation has two problems. The first is that it distorts the meaning of the Constitution. The second is that it makes the questionable assumption that the President will want to spend less than Congress.
Moreover, this legislation will have enormous economic implications for the country. The entire budget is the result of delicate negotiations among members of Congress, reflecting their constituents' different needs. At its worst, the President can veto most of the individual budget items, thereby totally negating the work of Congress and bringing on economic dictatorship by the President.
The President will now have the power to manipulate the Congress to further his political aims. Under the Constitution, he only has limited veto power to force the entire bill back to Congress.
On individual budget items, the President will now have, for the first time in our history, the power to deny the will of Congress unless it gives him what he wants. The line-item veto becomes a powerful bargaining tool to force members of Congress to vote the way the President wants, or else. This was never the intention of Washington, Madison, or even Hamilton, who favored a strong executive.
With a two-thirds vote needed to override a Presidential veto, it will be exceedingly difficult for any member of Congress to challenge the desire of a President. This reality moves our nation closer to a presidential form of government, precisely what the Founding Fathers did not want to happen. It also means the President can get his way with less than a majority vote in Congress.
The fact is that when it came to the power of the purse, the framers of the Constitution wanted Congress, for good reason, to be the dominant branch. We sometimes forget that Congress, not the President, is the ultimate defender of our freedom.
James Madison in his Federalist paper number 58 wrote, "This power of the purse may, in fact, be regarded as the most complete and effectual weapon with which any constitution can arm the immediate representatives of the people, for obtaining a redress of every grievance, and for carrying into effect every just and salutary measure."
For example, what did Congress do when it wanted to end the conflict in Vietnam in 1973? Simple: it used the power of the purse to cut off funding for the war. This was precisely what the Founding Fathers wanted to happen when Congress, supported by the people, was faced with this kind of a situation.
Let's consider what else is wrong with the idea of a line-item veto. Under the Constitution, all legislative power belongs to Congress. Article I, section 7, grants to Congress alone the discretion to package bills precisely as it wants. This is a critically important part of our system of checks and balances.
Therefore, when the President vetoes only portions of a bill and signs the other part, he is actually creating new legislation which has never been voted on by Congress. This is clearly unconstitutional.
In addition, the line-item veto would totally distort the Constitution by allowing the President to veto even programs from previous years that have already been passed by Congress.
Funding for all programs comes up ever year, so the President can make folly of the legislative process by knocking out all sorts of previously approved programs, and replacing them with what he wants.
For good reason, the Founding Fathers deliberately vested the power of the purse firmly with Congress. The line-item veto does the opposite. This legislation was justified on the basis of our need to reduce the Federal budget. But again, why is the President better equipped to do this than Congress? And second, what often looks like pork-barrel legislation is nothing more than the compromises needed to get legislation passed in a large, diverse country like ours.
There is no question that we need new ideas for increasing the rate of economic growth in the United States. But surely, the shortsighted line- item veto is not one of these ideas. What we need to do is to intelligently reduce federal expenditures in those areas that are not benefiting our economy or our people.
Conversely, Congress also needs the courage and the creativity to use the budget to financially support, on a continuing basis, new economic ideas for increasing the wealth of the United States. This is clearly one of the best ways for helping our people economically and in other ways.
All the line-item veto does is to show how little Congress understands the Constitution and how best to help American citizens from all income categories. In the end, the line-item veto is nothing but an irresponsible law that slashes at the Constitution and, ultimately, our freedom.
Mr. Previdi, a former director of corporate communication at Citicorp, writes on military, political, and economic subjects.