The Item And “fight ‘em” Veto


Any President trying to reinvigorate the office was bound to do battle with congressional leaders and, like Grant, would consider the item veto as a means not to control the legislature but to keep it from controlling him. Grant’s successor, Rutherford B. Hayes (1877-81), put it crisply and combatively in one of his messages. The rider system established the principle that the House (which must originate appropriations) could withhold money “upon which the existence of the Government may depend unless the Senate and the President shall give their assent to any legislation which the House may see fit to attach to appropriation bills.” It was a “radical, dangerous, and unconstitutional change,” said Hayes, who retired after one term of bitter battles with spoilsmen in his own Republican party. James A. Garfield, who followed him, might have asked for an item veto had he not been assassinated early in his term; he was on record as saying that it had “better be known in the outset whether the President is the head of the government, or the registering clerk of the Senate.” Chester A. Arthur, a reformed spoilsman who followed Garfield into office, also took up the gauge. He recommended—fruitlessly—separate bills for each outlay so that the President could have “full opportunity…of opposing whatever appropriations seemed to him objectionable without imperiling the success of others.”

Presidents dependent on congressional goodwill were less likely to call for the item veto. Benjamin Harrison was elected in 1888 without a plurality of the popular vote and with considerable assistance from several Republican state bosses. He complained about the straitjacket that general appropriations bills put upon the President’s veto power but apparently thought the remedy must come through congressional self-control. Three Presidencies later William Howard Taft faced a major rebellion among congressional Republicans but all the same emerged from the experience as the most outspoken presidential opponent of the item veto. Taft, both as President and later as Chief Justice of the United States, was a genuine conservative, reluctant to bend the Constitution. He, too, hated riders, but to give the President a “partial veto,” he wrote in 1916, was a bad idea unless “we could always be sure of its wise and conscientious exercise.” But that wasn’t the case; the item veto would “greatly enlarge the influence of the President, already large enough.”

Grant was the first President to ask for the veto, having taken office when the power of the Presidency was at its lowest ebb.

Herbert Hoover, likewise a conservative, also denounced the idea in his own postpresidential reflections. It was in the New Deal era that denunciations of congressional spending became a bread-and-butter argument for conservatives, but Hoover was not about to recommend that Franklin D. Roosevelt be given the power to restrict it. He scorned the “curious idea that the Executive must protect the people from legislative endeavors to please group interests by…wasteful expenditures.”

In fact, Roosevelt (and Truman after him) were not particularly passionate advocates of the item veto. Their congressional opponents usually wanted to spend less, not more, than the Presidents recommended. Roosevelt did say to his majority leader that the President ought, like many governors, to have the power to veto a rider separately, but he recognized a “respectable difference of opinion” on the subject. Truman called his inability to kill individual appropriations an “important lack in the presidential veto power” but, like FDR, did not seek battle on the issue, having plenty of other quarrels of greater weight to pursue.

Eisenhower was, in domestic policy, inclined toward conciliating Congress. He did recommend an item veto, however, as a necessary procedure for “strengthening fiscal responsibility.” So it is fair to say that his administration is the first to link the item veto tightly to the crusade for cutting down the government’s alleged wastefulness, particularly under Democrats. Thereafter, the proposed reform, despite some bipartisan backing (from all three candidates in 1992, for example), became more integral to Republican polemics, and the road was paved for its inclusion in the Gingrich agenda.

Perceptive readers will take note, however, that the item veto changes its nature over the years. Starting as a suggested firewall against congressional power grabs, it becomes in our own time another potential weapon to be used by any imperial President. So it is involved in that ongoing contest among the branches of government that rises out of the separation of powers, and we can expect it to continue no matter who rises and falls on the seesaw of power, though parties may undergo sudden amazing changes of heart depending on the latest set of election returns. I hope this excursion furnishes some perspective; as for the item veto’s fate in 1996, stay tuned.