How Trump gets a line-item veto

President Trump has been criticized for passing a larded-up budget, but it's not that simple to get a balanced budget. One way is with the line-item veto, but to achieve this will take some careful strategizing. Here is how it works:

A presidential line-item veto requires an amendment to the Constitution, which Congress will never propose.  Passing such a law would take a two-thirds vote in both House and Senate, and it’s far beyond reach.  What is within reach is proposing a line-item veto amendment through the constitutional alternative  --  through the states, using Article V of the Constitution. 

Twenty-eight states have passed resolutions calling for an Amendment Convention to propose a balanced budget amendment.   The line-item veto is simply one method of achieving it.  All 28 resolutions specifically authorize that the amendment may include “… appropriate fiscal restraints”  as a means of balancing the budget.  A line-item veto fits perfectly within this description.

There are currently six Republican-controlled state legislatures, which have not passed a resolution calling for an Amendment Convention  --   Idaho, Montana, Minnesota, Kentucky, South Carolina and Virginia.  Fear of a runaway convention has prevented passage in these states.  But if all they are asked to authorize is a line-item veto  -- one specific means of getting to a balanced budget  -- their fears can be overcome.  It narrows the scope of the call.  And President Trump can personally guarantee that no runaway convention will occur on his watch.

The Amendment Convention which would draft the actual language of the proposed amendment will be controlled by the conservative Republican legislative leaders of the thirty-plus red states.  This is the most pro-Trump group of politicians in the country.  No amendment can be ratified without Trump’s support, effectively giving him a veto.  To a large extent, the amendment will be what Trump wants, and nothing more.

Veto // Illustration by artist DonkeyHotey / Creative Commons Share 2.0

The line-item veto is politically more attractive than a generic balanced budget amendment.  It is definite, not vague, and simple, not complex.  It’s familiar to the voters, since it’s now used by the governors of 44 states.  It does not prevent spending in a national emergency.  And with former presidents Clinton and Obama supporting it, it is bipartisan.  As such, it could easily be ratified by 38 states through the state convention process, which was used to ratify the 20st  Amendment

Simply requiring Congress to balance the budget is inadequate.  How is such a requirement to be enforced?  Congress routinely circumvents or ignores constitutional restraints on its power.  But if the president is given the enforcement authority of a line-item veto, the budget can realistically be brought under control, and eventually balanced.

Congress can impeach a president and the Supreme Court, and in Article V, the Constitution establishes a procedure for Congress itself to be disciplined.  But the 50 state legislatures who hold this power have never been able to unify sufficiently in order to exercise it.  No one has been able to lead the 7,383 individuals who control our state legislatures.  At the moment there is only one person in the country who can provide this leadership, the president.  While he is not mentioned in Article V, the president has persuasive powers which are needed in order for Article V to finally be put to use. 

A line-item veto is a transfer of power from Congress to the president.  This would be the first such transfer in our history.  The only other Constitutional changes that are comparable are the direct election of Senators and presidential term limits.

The 17th Amendment stripped state legislatures of their power to elect Senators.  They deserved it.  A seat in United States Senate was a prize that was for sale to the highest bidder.  The corruption of the state legislatures caused their loss of power.

President Franklin Roosevelt showed that a skilled politician could become president for life.  The 22nd Amendment was a repudiation of the concentration of power in the president.  Roosevelt's refusal to give up power meant his successors were term-limited..

And so it is with Congress and the line-item veto.  They have richly earned their comeuppance, giving us 21 trillion reasons to reduce their spending powers.  Like legislative bodies big and small, across the country and around the world, every year Congress is obligated to pass one, and only one, bill  --- a budget.  As we just saw with the 2018 Omnibus spending bill, the process which Congress now uses is the worst of all possible worlds.  Four people - Sen. Mitch McConnell, Sen. Chuck Schumer, Rep. Paul Ryan and Rep. Nancy Pelosi - write the budget in secret, and the members of Congress, and the president, are forced to accept it or be blamed for shutting down the government.  It's political blackmail, and a form of legislative dictatorship.  That's why McConnell, Schumer and Pelosi like doing business this way.

A political campaign for the line-item veto is a campaign against Congress, and, effectively, its leaders.  As such, right now it's hard to see how it could lose.  Whoever leads such a campaign will be richly rewarded, politically.

If President Trump succeeds, and Article V is used, he will have been the first president to use this feature of the Constitution to control Congress.  The balance of power in our constitutional system will have changed.  It’s possible other amendments might follow.  This would be a constitutional development more significant than Marbury vs. Madison.  In any fight with Congress, every future president will know he can call on the states, and the people, to help him prevail.

The President says this is the only way to fix the budget process, and get around the filibuster.   His predecessors, from Ulysses S. Grant to Ronald Reagan to Bill Clinton to Barack Obama, have wanted this authority.  It is an idea whose time has come. 

The Amendment Convention could be held little more than a year from now, and the ratification could be done by state conventions before the end of 2019.  If all went according to plan, Trump could have a line-item veto at the beginning of 2020, with the presidential election just months away. 


Fritz Pettyjohn is a lawyer and former Alaska State Senator, who blogs at  He was formerly associated with the Balanced Budget Task Force, and is in the process of helping to form a new group, tentatively named Americans for the Line Item Veto.

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