Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Line item veto

Bush's silly op-ed in today's Wall Street Journal repeats the tired claim that, if only he had the line item veto, he could hold the line on spending. Bruce Bartlett handled this canard nicely in a NY Times blog some months ago (accessible to Times Select readers only, I believe), noting among other points that Bush has yet to veto any spending bill and that, at the state level, empirical data suggest that all the line item veto does is shift spending to match the governor's priorities more and the legislature's priorities less.

Ever since the election, Bush has of course discovered the earmarks issue, previously a matter of zero concern to him. But it's important, I think, to make the point that line item vetoes can easily increase spending, rather than reduce it. And under Bush that is exactly what I would expect. But perhaps not only under him.

Let's start with the naive static view, in which the legislature passes a bunch of stuff. Then the executive uses his line item veto, in which case spending declines, or else he doesn't use it, in which case spending is unaffected.

This would pretty much be it if all political actors' short-term memories were on a par with that of the protagonist in the movie Memento. (Leaving aside how that character ingeniously tries to act consistently in pursuit of long-term goals despite his short-term memory loss.)

But in fact everyone operates in the budgetary game with enough short-term and long-term memory to maneuver in the shadow of the rules, whatever they are. So the only clear effect of a line item veto is that it strengthens the executive relative to the legislature. If he wants higher spending than does the legislature, the line item veto helps him to get it, by offering him an extra tool to use in bargaining for votes. ("Support my new mega-program or I will line item veto your earmarks.")

The real issue, then, is what effect we should ascribe to its shifting budgetary authority, at the margin, from the legislature to the executive. Here there is a fundamental ambiguity. Legislatures tend to like more small bore piecemeal stuff than executives do, especially if the legislatures aren't tightly run by a leadership in parliamentary style (which can make them more executive-like). After all, there are 435 House districts just waiting to be outfitted with bridges to nowhere, Lawrence Welk museums, unneeded military bases, etc. But executives, while they have less incentive to do that sort of thing, tend to like doing more really big expensive stuff. They are looking for legacy-makers. This could mean a Star Wars missile defense, or national healthcare, or a costly foreign war, or whatever else tickles a particular executive's fancy. One way or another, the job creates powerful incentives to think big.

So here's my bottom line. A President is playing on a big stage and thus, I surmise, is likely on average to want more spending than the Congress does. (Governors aren't on quite as big a stage, so this aspect might show up less in the empirical data from that level.) Give Presidents the line item veto, and the predominant effect is likely to be that it helps them get more big stuff, even if they use it every now and then to reduce the small stuff.

Once again, therefore, Bush's proposed policy points in the direction of greater profligacy, certainly under him but probably in the long run as well. Good to know that he has zero chance of getting it, and is actually just preparing to play the blame game after he doesn't.

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