In a major blow to President Clinton and Republican leaders of Congress, a federal judge ruled Thursday that it was unconstitutional for the president to veto individual items in spending and tax legislation, rather than signing or rejecting the entire bill.
Judge Thomas F. Hogan of the U.S. District Court in Washington struck down the line-item veto, saying it improperly allowed the president to “pick and choose among portions of an enacted law to determine which ones will remain valid.”
But Hogan’s decision, which gave victories to challengers from New York City and Idaho, will almost certainly not be the last word on the issue. President Clinton’s lawyers said they would appeal directly to the Supreme Court for an expedited decision, as provided by the Line Item Veto Act itself.
“Although I am disappointed with today’s ruling, it is my belief that ultimately the line-item veto will be ruled constitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court,” Clinton said in a written statement. He said the veto “has worked well, saving the American taxpayers more than $1 billion already.”
Charles Cooper, who represented the New York City challengers, said other people or organizations who “feel pinched” by any of Clinton’s 82 line-item vetoes could ask a court to apply the Hogan decision to them. But he said the administration is likely to ask the Supreme Court to preserve the status quo until it decides the issue.
Sen. Robert C. Byrd of West Virginia, one of three Democratic senators who supported the challenge to the line-item veto, called the ruling “a victory for the American people. It is their liberties that have been made more secure.”
Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., another challenger, predicted, “The Supreme Court will find Judge Hogan’s decision compelling.”
Michael Davidson, who represented Byrd, Levin and Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan of New York, said he expects the justices to hear the administration’s appeal and place it on the fast track to a decision by July.
That, in fact, is what the Supreme Court did last year after another federal judge here, Thomas P. Jackson, invalidated the veto before it was used. But the high court revived the law, saying it could not be challenged until someone was hurt by a veto.
Nearly every president in this century sought a line-item veto. It was the only part of the 1994 House Republican’s “Contract With America” Clinton endorsed. About 45 governors have such powers under state laws.
Congress passed the Line Item Veto Act in 1996 as a means of giving the president greater control over runaway spending and money for local projects, derisively known as “pork.” In his 27-page opinion, Judge Hogan attributed passage of the act to the inability of Congress “to control its voracious appetite for ‘pork.”’
But as the veto came into use, many members of Congress of both political parties have expressed dismay over it, noting how easily it can be used to extract promises, wreak revenge and knock out worthy pet projects.
When Clinton crossed out $287 million of military construction projects last October, irate House and Senate members voted overwhelmingly to restore them and questioned the wisdom of the line-item veto.
Hogan, an appointee of President Reagan, concluded the line-item veto violated the basic constitutional principle that divides power among three branches of government in order to protect the liberties of the American people.