In their decision to vest in the President the authority to veto bills, the Framers made it clear that the veto had to be applied to the entire bill, not parts of it. President George Washington, the presiding officer at the Constitutional Convention, stated, “From the nature of the Constitution, I must approve all parts of a Bill, or reject it in toto.” But since the 1840s, various political actors have urged attribution to the President of an item veto power which, depending on its definition, would permit the deletion or veto of parts of legislation or specific expenditures within an appropriation bill.
The first codification of the item veto occurred in the Confederate Constitution of 1861, by which the Confederate President was authorized to veto parts of appropriations bills. President Jefferson Davis vetoed 38 bills, but he never invoked the item veto power. In the aftermath of the Civil War, various states adopted for their governors the authority to exercise the line item veto. By 1920, 37 states had adopted the item veto. The widespread attraction of the item veto lay in its perceived remedy for the corruption and the irresponsible spending practices among state legislatures.
President Ulysses S. Grant admired, and envied, the item veto possessed by state chief executives and, in his fifth State of the Union Message on December 1, 1873, became the first President to ask for it. He, too, believed it would aid the President in his effort to curb the abuse and waste of government funds. Since then, a parade of Presidents—of both parties—have sought the item veto.
Advocates of an item veto for the President have advanced several arguments. First, the constraints placed on the veto, that is, blocking an entire bill, is adequate to counter the penchant of Congress for attaching riders and other nongermane amendments to legislation. This leaves the President in the unfortunate position of making an all-or-nothing choice. Second, supporters of an item veto contend that it is necessary to empower the President to weed out excessive spending and pork barrel projects, which Congress is notorious for passing. Third, proponents point to the success enjoyed by governors in limiting wasteful spending. President Reagan, an enthusiastic advocate, possessed that power as Governor of California , and believed it would bring fiscal discipline to the federal government.
Opponents of the item veto have adduced several arguments that undercut the claims of its advocates. First, such a power would give the President too much power over the legislative branch, and undermine the prospects of compromise in enacting a measure. Presidents have acquired or aggrandized broad powers over foreign affairs and national security, and the idea of amassing power in the domestic realm that encroaches on the lawmaking power of Congress is particularly galling to opponents of the item veto. Second, the assumption that federal spending would be dramatically reduced is unrealistic since most spending is mandated by contracts, laws and other obligations. Moreover, appropriations bills are not itemized; as a consequence, the President would be unable to weed out offensive expenditures. In addition, it is error to suppose that members of Congress are the only governmental actors with an interest in pork barrel spending. Presidents often share an interested in such spending. Third, opponents of the item veto explain away the argument that the state model would inform presidential practices and insure fiscal success and discipline. State governments more heavily rely on gubernatorial governance since most legislatures are part-time. Accordingly, governors typically have broader authority—necessary to conduct the business of the state while the legislature is not in session. Then, too, the item veto as not been exercised to produce an appreciable impact on overall spending at the state level. Rather, it has become a gubernatorial tool for pursuing partisan interests. Why, opponents ask, would it be any different at the federal level? Presidents are hardly disinterested observers of spending habits.
Federal courts have struck down the item veto. In 1996, Congress passed the Line Item Veto Act, the culmination of pleas from Presidents for a powerful tool which, they believed, would help bring federal spending under control. Two years later, in Clinton v. City of New York (1998), the U.S. Supreme Court held the statute unconstitutional as violation of Article I procedures. As the Court pointed out, an item veto would undermine the ability of Congress to negotiate compromises integral to the lawmaking process.