Line-Item Veto: Definition, Pros & Cons

Instructor: Jason Nowaczyk

Jason has a masters of education in educational psychology and a BA in history and a BA in philosophy. He's taught high school and middle school

The following lesson will discuss a short-lived presidential veto power called the line-item veto. Learn about the definition of line-item vetoes as well as pros and cons. A short quiz will follow the lesson to check your understanding.

Definition and Background

Though no longer available at the presidential level, a line-item veto is a power that allowed a president to deny or reject specific provisions of spending legislation passed by Congress. In this lesson we will focus on the now defunct presidential line-item veto, though it's important to note that this power is still available to most state governors.

You may have heard the phrase 'not everything is black and white.' This phrase means that sometimes choices aren't as simple as yes or no, or a choice is not starkly defined as one or the other. Take for instance a controversial topic such as cloning, or the biological duplication of organisms. We might feel that cloning organs for people who need them is a good thing, but cloning full humans is a bad thing. Thus, we agree with some parts of cloning but not others. This is similar to the situation a president finds when deciding whether to approve a bill sent by Congress.

Traditionally, a president has the power to either sign a bill into law, thereby accepting it, or rejecting a bill by vetoing it. The issue of line-item veto came about because there were bills that would arrive on a president's desk that the president agreed with in some parts but not in others. More specifically, presidents often disagree with sections of bills that deal with how things the bill asks for will be funded.

In the past, presidents have asked Congress to allow them to veto only specific parts of a bill without vetoing the entire thing. In fact, former President Ronald Reagan asked Congress repeatedly to give him the power to veto specific parts of bills that dealt with government spending, because he felt it was the only way he could control how much money Congress was spending.

In 1996, Congress passed the Line-Item Veto Act. This act was signed by former President Bill Clinton, and it gave the president the power to rescind (take away) any item in an appropriations bill (a bill that asks for money) unless Congress passed a resolution of disapproval. This in turn put the burden on Congress to disapprove rather than approve line-item veto items.

This was a change in business because prior to this act, Congress had to approve any presidential move to cancel funds. If Congress did nothing, the legislation remained intact as originally passed by Congress. In contrast, with the passing of the Line-Item Veto Act, if Congress were to do nothing, the president's vetoes would remain intact. In other words, a failure to act would mean the funds would be canceled rather than the president's line-item veto being canceled.

Steps in a Line-Item Veto

According to the the Line Item Veto Act of 1996, the Act worked as follows:

  1. Congress must first pass a bill that contains taxes or spending appropriations.
  2. The president can then take the bill and point out which specific items he (or she) opposes and then sign and send the modified bill to Congress.
  3. Congress has thirty days to disapprove of the parts that the president outlined with his veto power. Only a simple majority vote is required in both the House of Representatives and the Senate to override the line-items that were vetoed.
  4. If both houses get their simple majority vote, Congress sends a 'bill of disapproval' back to the president. If no action is taken or both houses fail to get a simple majority, the line-item vetoes are implemented as law.
  5. However, if the president is presented with a bill of disapproval, the president has the option to also veto that as well. To override a veto on a bill of disapproval, Congress would then need a two-thirds majority vote.

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