Line Item Veto Definition

History of Line Item Veto Power and the Presidency

President Bill Clinton's line item veto
President Bill Clinton exercised line item veto authority 82 times during his two terms in office. Wally McNamee/Getty Images

The line item veto is a now-defunct law that granted the president absolute authority to reject specific provisions, or "lines," of a bill sent to his desk by the U.S. House of Representatives and the Senate while allowing other parts of it to become law with his signature. The power of the line item veto would allow a president to kill parts of a bill without having to veto the entire piece of legislation. Many governors have this power, and the president of the United States did, too, before the U.S. Supreme Court ruled the line-item veto unconstitutional.

Critics of the line item veto say it granted the president too much power and allowed the powers of the executive branch to bleed into the duties and obligations of the legislative branch of government. "This act gives the president the unilateral power to change the text of duly enacted statutes," U.S. Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens wrote in 1998. Specifically, the court found that the Line Item Veto Act of 1996 violated the Presentment Clause of the Constitution, which allows a president to either sign or veto a bill in its entirety. The Presentment Clause states, in part, that a bill "be presented to the president of the United States; if he approve he shall sign it, but if not he shall return it." 

History of the Line Item Veto

U.S. Presidents have frequently asked Congress for line-time veto power. The line item veto was first brought before Congress in 1876, during President Ulysses S. Grant’s term of office. After repeated requests, Congress passed the Line Item Veto Act of 1996.

This is how the law worked before it was struck down by the high court:

  • Congress passed a piece legislation that included taxes or spending appropriations.
  • The president "lined out" specific items he opposed and then signed the modified bill.
  • The president sent the lined-out items to Congress, which had 30 days to disapprove of the line item veto. This required a simple majority vote in both chambers.
  • If both the Senate and House disapproved, Congress sent a "bill of disapproval" back to the president. Otherwise, the line item vetoes were implemented as law. Prior to the act, Congress had to approve any presidential move to cancel funds; absent congressional action, the legislation remained intact as passed by Congress.
  • However, the President could then veto the disapproval bill. To override this veto, Congress would have needed a two-thirds majority.

Presidential Spending Authority

Congress has periodically given the President statutory authority not to spend appropriated funds. Title X of The Impoundment Control Act of 1974 gave the president the power to both delay the expenditure of funds and to cancel funds, or what was called "rescission authority." However, to rescind funds, the president needed congressional concurrence within 45 days. However, Congress is not required to vote on these proposals and has ignored most presidential requests to cancel funds.

The Line Item Veto Act of 1996 changed that rescission authority. The Line Item Veto Act put the burden on Congress to disapprove a line-out by the president's pen. A failure to act meant the president's veto take effect. Under the 1996 act, Congress had 30 days to override a presidential line item veto. Any such congressional resolution of disapproval, however, was subject to a presidential veto. Thus Congress needed a two-thirds majority in each chamber to override the presidential rescission.

The act was controversial: it delegated new powers to the president, affected the balance between the legislative and executive branches, and changed the budget process.

History of the Line Item Veto Act of 1996

Republican U.S. Sen. Bob Dole of Kansas introduced the initial legislation with 29 cosponsors. There were several related House measures. There were restrictions on presidential power, however. According to the Congressional Research Service conference report, the bill:

Amends the Congressional Budget and Impoundment Control Act of 1974 to authorize the President to cancel in whole any dollar amount of discretionary budget authority, any item of new direct spending, or any limited tax benefit signed into law, if the President: (1) determines that such cancellation will reduce the Federal budget deficit and will not impair essential Government functions or harm the national interest; and (2) notifies the Congress of any such cancellation within five calendar days after enactment of the law providing such amount, item, or benefit. Requires the President, in identifying cancellations, to consider legislative histories and information referenced in law.

On March 17,1996, the Senate voted 69-31 to pass the final version of the bill. The House did so on March 28, 1996, on a voice vote. On April 9, 1996, President Bill Clinton signed the bill into law. Clinton later descried the Supreme Court's strikedown of the law, saying it was a "defeat for all Americans. It deprives the president of a valuable tool for eliminating waste in the federal budget and for enlivening the public debate over how to make the best use of public funds."

Legal Challenges to the Line Item Veto Act of 1996

The day after the Line Item Veto Act of 1996 passed, a group of U.S. senators challenged the bill in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia. U.S. District Judge Harry Jackson, who was appointed to the bench by Republican President Ronald Reagan, declared the law unconstitutional on April 10, 1997. The U.S. Supreme Court, however, ruled the senators did not have standing to sue, tossing their challenge and restoring the line item veto power to the president.

Clinton exercised the line item veto authority 82 times. Then the law was challenged in two separate lawsuits filed in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia. A group of lawmakers from the House and Senate maintained their opposition to the law. U.S. District Judge Thomas Hogan, also a Reagan appointee, declared the law unconstitutional in 1998. His ruling was affirmed by the Supreme Court.

The Court ruled that the law violated the Presentment Clause (Article I, Section 7, Clauses 2 and 3) of the U.S. Constitution because it gave the president the power to unilaterally amend or repeal parts of statutes that had been passed by Congress. The court ruled that the Line Item Veto Act of 1996 violated the process that the U.S. Constitution establishes for how bills originating in Congress become federal law.

Similar Measures

The Expedited Legislative Line-Item Veto and Rescissions Act of 2011 allows the president to recommend specific line items be cut from legislation. But it's up to Congress to agree under this law. If Congress does not enact the proposed rescission within 45 days, the president must make the funds available, according to the Congressional Research Service.

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Gill, Kathy. "Line Item Veto Definition." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, Gill, Kathy. (2023, April 5). Line Item Veto Definition. Retrieved from Gill, Kathy. "Line Item Veto Definition." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 5, 2023).