Moving to decide quickly whether the president can cancel wasteful spending items that are part of larger bills, the Supreme Court announced Wednesday that it will hear arguments and issue a ruling by July on the constitutionality of the Line Item Veto Act.
Just two weeks ago, a federal judge struck down the new law as unconstitutional before it had ever been used. The law itself calls for a fast-track appeal, and the justices said that they would hear arguments on the issue May 27.
Many lawmakers, aware of their penchant for loading up spending bills, have long believed that the chief executive needs the power to veto individual items from huge spending packages. Led by a new Republican majority, Congress passed a bill last year that allows the president to sign a bill into law but strike from it items he does not like.
But this new executive authority seems to defy both the Constitution and legal tradition. As George Washington wrote in a letter: “From the nature of the Constitution, I must approve all the parts of a bill or reject it in toto.”
Now, the Supreme Court must decide whether Washington’s original understanding of “the nature of the Constitution” was correct.
Six members of Congress, led by Sen. Robert C. Byrd, D-W.Va., sued to overturn the line-item veto on the theory that it stripped legislators of the ultimate power over spending.
U.S. District Judge Thomas Penfield Jackson agreed. The bill “fundamentally altered” the powers of both Congress and the president, he said, a change that can be made only through a constitutional amendment.
In a statement Wednesday, President Clinton praised the Supreme Court for moving quickly to hear the case (Byrd vs. Raines, 96-1671). “The line-item veto provides a critical tool for the president to strike down wasteful spending and tax items from legislation,” Clinton said.
It is not a certainty, however, that the court will uphold or strike down the bill this summer.
The justices must consider two threshold issues: first, whether individual lawmakers have “standing” to challenge a bill passed by Congress and, second, whether the challenge is “ripe” now, even though Clinton has yet to use his line-item veto power.
The Supreme Court has not squarely ruled on whether members of the House or Senate have legal standing to go to court to fight decisions made by Congress as a whole.