Let us start with some uncheerful axioms about the fiscal policies of the central government of the United States at the close of the 20th century. “Beggar thy grandchildren” is, de facto if not by design, the guiding principle of the United States Congress. The government’s gross debt, plus the interest on the debt, plus the locus of the annual deficit, all combine to inflict seismic damage on the nation’s future. What are the core conditions leading to our national ailment? First, the federal government is too aggressive in gratifying ever-expanding appetites for new programs to solve every constituent-perceived problem. Government is too timid to establish priorities among a near-infinite number of programs clamoring to spend near-infinite resources. Government also refuses to set and observe spending priorities, the necessary precondition to any fiscal solution.
Simultaneously, there exists a “grandiloquence gap”—a vast chasm between the system’s bewitchery in promoting new programs and the implacable reality of our financial condition. For example, the need to care for victims of AIDS, cancer, crib death, and learning disabilities outstrips both science and the fisc. Tragically and typically, however, the program-promoting rhetoric always outpoints reality in the media’s ratings-driven attention.
If you find yourself in accord with these cloudy axioms and wish to examine a workable solution to the budget problem, read on. If you do not embrace these axioms, you will not be amused by what follows and should find something else to read.
The fiscal condition of the American government shows all the symptoms of an ancient disease. It is a disease which Madison, Jefferson, and others warned against with incisive clarity at the start of the Republic, but against which no structural remedies were then created that remain effective today. Essentially, the malady is the appetite of elected legislatures to spare no extravagance in the pursuit of immediate constituent gratification, without regard to whether all private fortunes are destroyed and the economic machinery disabled in the process. Thomas Jefferson warned of exactly this spendthrift ethos.
Since no effective constitutional cures now exist, it falls to our lot, as the 13th generation of citizens since the original settlers (or as the generational groups appurtenant to that 13th generation), to create some. One such remedy, if property structured, is the line item veto, Roman style.
We are told, mostly by those most enamored of the congressional spending ethos, that the creation of a line item veto with real bite to it (as contrasted with Speaker Foley’s toothless ersatz version), exercisable by an American President upon any appropriation or expenditure, would prove to be repellant to democratic political theory. Opponents of the line item veto assert that such control, in the hands of a determined chief executive, would dramatically and permanently tilt the necessary balance of power away from the House and Senate and toward the White House. The risk to our institutions is that Caesarism, or worse, would surely follow. Even when voiced by deficit-embracing pols who desire only to keep the spending train careening down the tracks, arguments about the undue reach of executive power are both vahd and sensible and must be addressed. Republican history, American and Roman, provides a key to having it both ways—the power of true fiscal discipline vested in the White House coupled with no important diminution of congressional authority.
Ponder the Roman system of dealing with crisis in a counterbalanced system of government. History buffs will recall that the division of powers among the legislature and executive pursuant to the American constitutional system purposely parallels, in a very telling fashion, the Roman Republic’s equilibrium among its three centers of political power during its flourishing centuries prior to 50 B.C. In short, there are some things to be learned from the Roman system of Republican governance that are quite apt to the American fiscal crisis.
Roman constitutional usage allowed the creation, for periods of six months, of a single-leader dictatorship. This short-term dictator held powers ascendant even to those of the consuls, but only during periods of grave, nation-threatening crises such as foreign invasion or rebellion. Such dictatorships were periodic in nature and renewable semiannually and would cease when the crisis ceased. George Washington’s admiration for (and favorable comparison with) the statesmanship of Lucius Quinctius Cincinnatus, twice dictator of Rome during such crises, is well grounded. Cincinnatus was a sufficient patriot of the Republic to forsake his powers and return to private life after the successful completion of his tasks in each of his two dictatorships. Periodicity—emergency powers exercisable only during periods of extreme crisis—was at the core of this policy.
A modern extension of this historically successful concept of periodicity could take the sting out of the line item veto, just as it allayed Roman fear of undue power. The baseline fear was that someone would seek forcibly to make extraordinary, periodic powers permanent. Prior to the Ides of March in 44 B.C., Julius Caesar made himself dictator for ten years and later for life. Americans wisely share the fear of permanent despotism of any kind—fiscal, military, or otherwise. Like the Romans, we are more tolerant of short-term extraordinary powers during times of national crisis.
A far-reaching line item veto, created by constitutional amendment and vesting in the President the power to strike any individual appropriation or spending commitment from any bill, can be limited by periodicity. Because of the nearly exponential deficit growth arising out of cost of living adjustments, entitlements, and prior spending commitments, it would also be extremely useful to extend the veto to any item in the gross federal budget. Such a presidential power to cut could exist irrespective of the year in which any expenditure was first committed. At first blush this is a somewhat startling concept. Madison’s core political dicta that men are not angels and therefore should not be vested with sweeping powers without “ancillary precautions” comes to bear on this notion. Yet the concept of periodicity is just such an “ancillary precaution.”
To safeguard against an undue permanent tilt of power to the executive branch, the law could tie the line item veto to budgetary conditions from one fiscal year to another. Specifically, the line item veto could come into existence whenever interest paid on the federal debt exceeded a fixed percentage of the nation’s GDP (say 3.5 percent). Currently we are in trouble. The GDP is running at about $5.7 trillion per year while interest on the net debt is running at $200 billion—3.5 percent. In other words, if at some time during the year 1996 it was determined by a set of agreed-upon accounting principles that interest on the debt exceeded 3.5 percent of GDP, whoever is then serving as President of the United States would immediately enjoy the power to exercise a line item veto over any congressional spending measures previously established or coming to his desk thereafter. The duration of such power could be the time necessary to reduce such interest below 3.5 percent of GDP (using agreed-upon accounting principles) or until the new fiscal year began, whichever was greater.
Even in the midst of fiscal crises. Congress represents all too well the notion that “all politics are local politics.” Accordingly, even now Congress devotes its chief efforts and energy to devising, funding, and overseeing governmental programs intended to gratify constituent needs. These largely focus upon parochial clamoring for government largess, such as petroleum-state resistance in Congress to energy taxes. Moreover and sad to say, a congressman representing Groton, Connecticut, cannot be expected to raise his voice and his vote in vigorous opposition to Pentagon submarine contracts. A senator representing Iowa is not likely to oppose agricultural subsidies of a generous magnitude. Those legislators with significant numbers of AIDS victims in their districts cannot be expected to resist the political demand to quadruple and then quadruple again the amount spent for research and treatment of that plague. And under present conditions, national legislators coming from Connecticut, California, and Iowa can invariably be expected to collaborate in logrolling efforts to pass constituent- pleasing appropriations irrespective of national budgetary impact. On a political level, Congress is often incapable of getting interest groups to defer present gratifications or exercising necessary levels of fiscal discipline.
The President, on the other hand, can be expected to take a more transcendent view of the nation’s welfare. As an institution, the presidency was designed to be answerable at three levels: to immediate constituencies, to the nation as an entity-constituency, and to a posterity-constituency of the nonvoting, even yet unborn citizenry. One must hope that, given the President’s role as fiduciary for the nation’s future, occupants of the Oval Office will exercise greater political courage than mere congressmen. Morally, the President answers not only to individual voters in Groton or Mason City or Beverly Hills, but also to posterity for the long-term economic health and viability of the entire country. A properly empowered President might often be expected to oppose the “grab some more benefits now and bill our grandchildren for it” mentality of Congress. At the least, intellectual honesty should cause a President to admit that a great deal of what is spent is wasted and could readily be terminated. (The GAO, the Grace Commission, and former Chairman of the House Budget Committee Leon Panetta figured that about $100 billion a year is usually wasted.)
There is a powerful commonality between people distressed over our environmental habits and people distressed over our fiscal habits. In the area of environmental protection, most Americans wish to bequeath unto their issue reasonably clean air and water and reasonable amounts of forest and natural parks. We also, when we take a moment to think about it, wish to bequeath to our issue an economic environment that is not drowning in unpaid pork bills, an economic engine not so depleted that a future generation’s opportunities are dimmed forever by the need to pay for its grandparents’ profligacy. Only the President can be expected to hold that perspective on a continuing basis, even if it is only sporadically acted upon.
Quite apart from the nation’s moral obligations to the future, a Roman-style line item veto essentially allows the democratic process to work its will. During times when Congress is sufficiently organized and courageous to keep national spending within constitutionally permitted bounds (e.g., debt interest kept below 3.5 percent of GDP), there is no shift in power between the executive and legislature. Only when congressional appropriations have so far exceeded federal income as to hit the 3.5 percent trip wire and create a constitutionally defined threat to the nation’s continuing economic health would congressional power be temporarily diminished. Under such circumstances, it is self-evident that Congress has proved itself inadequate to the task of fiscal self-discipline, and only then would the proposed line item veto come into play.
In the unhappy event that both the occupant of the White House and Congress are lacking in the necessary clarity of purpose or moral courage, then nothing will be done unless and until the electorate changes the equation. In this regard, responsibilities will be clearly affixed, even as the runaway spending train continues to careen down the tracks of immediate gratification—damaging both the present and future prospects of the nation. Jefferson regarded the wisdom of the people as the last great repository of power. The electorate’s right to select its leaders constitutes the final line of defense, and clarity of accountability will assist that corrective impulse. Our constitutional system has met many crises for the past two centuries and weathered many storms; our self-corrective structure has proved adaptable in the past. This flexibility should once again be nurtured.
Obscuring the issues, and hence accountability, is the fiscal sinner’s most intimate ally when he is back home on the political hustings. As things stand now, the issue of who caused a fiscal mess is “complexified” beyond any utility in the electoral process. You know the cant. We are told that no President has sent up a balanced budget for the past 12 years. And, after all, Congress actually spent less than the President wanted on this or that program. Or, Reagan caused the crisis because he spent it all on the Cold War and cut taxes in the balance. Or, Bush raised taxes and stalled growth—otherwise there would be no deficit. Or, Congress only responds to the felt needs of the long-suffering people, and Clinton-Gore were mandated to change. Many other villains are used to obscure blame, such as PAC money, the congressional committee system, special interest groups, the revolving door, the Federal Reserve Board, the “system,” urban mayors, or the Japanese—pick any one. Pick any three. The Roman-style line item veto would eliminate the straw villains and point the blame at the fiscally irresponsible culprits who put constituent gratification above the national interest. Hence a Roman-style line item veto would add great clarity to blame-affixing.
Posit for a moment what would be the political dynamics of 1993 if the “new” Democrat sitting in the White House presently held a line item veto power pursuant to the periodicity proposal outlined in this article. Imagine the amount of pressure coming from the Republican and Perot camps (57 percent of the electorate) for the President to undertake the statesman-like posture of bringing about fiscal change through use of the line item veto, which would be the Constitution’s bright-line test of leadership. Failure to use the veto would attach to the occupant of the White House the label of a “do-nothing” President with no regard for the future and would cast his reelection (perhaps even renomination) prospects into serious doubt.
Samuel Johnson observed to James Boswell that the prospect of hanging at dawn tended wonderfully to concentrate the mind. So, too, the 3.5 percent benchmark, once embedded in the Constitution, could wonderfully concentrate the minds of future Presidents. It is exactly this sort of “ancillary precaution” of which Madison spoke. It deserves enactment.