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I have often wondered why there are so many bills that are massive and incredibly complex passed through the Legislative branch. Why are bills stacked together and mashed up with a variety sections altogether rather than passed separately as small, easy to understand bills? Doesn't it seem as though they could get more done that way, and have less influence from crooked lobbyists trying to pack big bills with their own two cents?

I admit that I am not very well informed on this subject, but I just read Ronald Reagan's autobiography and I just felt like he made so many great points on this subject. I also read on Wikipedia that other Presidents, both Democrat and Republican have asked for the same thing.

Presidents of the United States have repeatedly asked the Congress to give them a line-item veto power. According to Louis Fisher in The Politics of Shared Power, Ronald Reagan said to Congress in his 1986 State of the Union address, "Tonight I ask you to give me what forty-three governors have: Give me a line-item veto this year. Give me the authority to veto waste, and I'll take the responsibility, I'll make the cuts, I'll take the heat." Bill Clinton echoed the request in his State of the Union address in 1995.

Doesn't it just seem like a good common sense idea, or am I missing something?

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    The rest of that paragraph on Wikipedia seems to answer your question pretty conclusively. – jwodder Oct 5 '17 at 12:45
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    @Micheal_Ulferts If you look at the edit history on that Wikipedia page you can see that there were several contributors, not to mention citations, so it isn't exactly a single viewpoint. – user3067860 Oct 5 '17 at 15:16
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    Example: Congress made a compromise: I want A, you want B. I would support your B if you will support my A. So we have votes to fund both. Now with line item veto, your item B was vetoed but my A stays. How do you like the compromise now? – Peter M. Oct 5 '17 at 21:58
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    It's not "one viewpoint in Wikipedia". Just because it's written in Wikipedia does not mean that it's not the opinion of the Supreme Court of the United States. – Beanluc Oct 5 '17 at 22:13
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    In addition, facts have the novel quality of being verifiable; see supreme.justia.com/cases/federal/us/524/417. It doesn't take much deduction to figure out the fundamental answer to your seminal question: it would require an amendment to the United States Constitution. – Robert Harvey Oct 6 '17 at 0:52
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It's a good idea if you think the President should have much stronger powers than other branches, and that legislative compromise should be eliminated, as part of the system, altogether.

As much as we hate the way legislation is bundled, it is, quite often the way to work compromise into the system. I don't vote for measure "A", but I want measure "B", which measure "A" proponents oppose. In both cases, our support for our causes outweighs the aversion for the others' proposal, so they get bundled together.

If the President has the power to pick off just the pieces he doesn't like, it subverts the intent of the legislation, and, some may argue, basically allows the President to craft legislation (since vetoes are incredibly difficult to override), which is supposed to be the power of Congress. Congress is supposed to write the laws, the president approves them and is in charge of execution of those laws. The President is not supposed to be able to write laws, and this fine editing, some argue, basically gives him/her that power.

If the party or parties not aligned with the President don't have veto-overriding majorities, then they know that anything they want stands a strong chance of being edited out, and then there's no reason for them to support or not obstruct items on the President or his party's agenda.

Also, keep in mind, in general, this gives the President huge, specific, granular power over crafting budgets and legislation. Just as parties within Congress generally have to bargain and compromise, so do the different branches of government. This power greatly skews the balance of power.

It's very easy to veto just a few items you don't like, but when the decision gets made on allowing your own desired initiatives to go through, but only if some opposition items are attached, then the use of the veto becomes much less frequent and only for "big deal" items. The norm is discussion and compromise when that is in place, which, probably, is what the Founders envisioned.

On a more abstract scale, the Founders created what is supposed to be, on the surface of it, three co-equal branches of government in this system of checks and balances. The branch that is addressed first in the Constitution is the Legislative branch. Some Constitutional scholars argue that this is intentional, and the Founders wanted Congress to be "first among equals." Giving the President that much power and leverage would undermine that intent.

Does Congress Want to Govern? | RealClearPolicy

There's a reason why founding father James Madison called Congress "the first branch" of government...... It's no accident that the legislative branch is described in Article I of the Constitution, or that Article I is longer than the other six articles, combined.

What is Congress? - Shmoop

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    Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – Sam I am Oct 7 '17 at 3:23
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Why have US Presidents not been given the power of line item vetoes

They have. Congress passed the Line Item Veto Act of 1996, but it was declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court in Clinton v. City of New York in 1998 at the request of Rudy Giuliani and others.

To pass it in a constitutional fashion would require a constitutional amendment, and there haven't been enough votes for that.

An alternative would be to restore the presidential power of rescission taken away by the Congressional Budget and Impoundment Act of 1974 and the precedent set in Train v. City of New York.

Why are bills stacked together and mashed up with a variety sections altogether rather than passed separately as small, easy to understand bills?

Because big bills offer more room to give individual legislators things they want. For example, farm bills passed because rural and urban legislators teamed up. Rural legislators got farm support. Urban legislators got food stamps.

Or they make the budgeting work. For example, the Patient Protection & Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) passed student loan changes and Medicare cuts to provide part of the funding for their healthcare subsidies. If they had passed those separately as three bills, two of the bills would have provided deficit reduction according to Congressional Budget Office scoring while the third would have fallen short. Budget rules would have prevented the healthcare subsidies from passing alone.

Doesn't it seem as though they could get more done that way, and have less influence from crooked lobbyists trying to pack big bills with their own two cents?

There is a point of view that it is the corruption that makes the system work. Without it, compromise is difficult. Because it's the corrupt deals for pork projects that buy the support of legislators who would otherwise face problems from their supporters. If legislators aren't beholden to special interests who want things, then they have no incentive to vote for bills with any controversy.

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    Would there be anything constitutionally problematic about Congress passing rules that would provide for a President's proposed adjusted versions of bills to be brought to the floor of both houses for a straight-up vote without having to go through committees first? If 50% or more of either branch of Congress would rather have the bill die than be passed in revised form, it would, but if the majority of both houses would approve the change, it should be able to become law with minimal further ado. – supercat Oct 4 '17 at 22:32
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    @supercat Congress has the explicit power to make their own rules, so something like that would probably work constitutionally (although the President would still have to sign the bill again after it was passed with his proposed changes.) But they might not want to. – D M Oct 4 '17 at 23:00
  • @supercat Nothing wrong with that from a constitutional standpoint; Congress has passed laws providing for expedited consideration and few to no amendments in the past (e.g. trade deals generally come in for a straight up-and-down vote under fast track authority Congress gives the President). However, line-item vetos mean the unvetoed parts automatically pass and the vetoed parts need 2/3 support to override the veto on; your proposal would require a majority for anything to pass. – cpast Oct 5 '17 at 1:44
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    "it is the corruption that makes the system work" Dear lord that's frightening. – Lightness Races in Orbit Oct 5 '17 at 10:22
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    @cpast: A lot of cruft gets included in bills because people don't have to go on record as supporting it. If both houses of Congress pass a bill with something included and the President sends it back with that piece excluded and says "Pass this instead and I'll sign it", the bill should easily pass Congress again unless congresspeople go on record as having supported the bill with that piece but opposing it otherwise, which would in turn make it hard for them to deny support for the piece in question. – supercat Oct 5 '17 at 18:32
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Because it allows the President to pass a bill that is fundamentally different from the one Congress sent him.

To go back to civics class 101, the House or Senate proposes a bill that, upon passage in that house, gets sent to the other. The other then makes amendments or writes is own version and passes it back. The bill goes back and forth until both houses agree and only then does it get sent to the President. At that point a clock starts ticking. The President only has 10 days (Sundays excluded) to either pass or veto the bill (with some additional caveats that are irrelevant at the moment).

The Line-Item Veto act of 1996 allowed the President to pass the parts he likes, and pass just his objections back to Congress. This seems like a very small change, but in actuality it completely changes the power dynamic between the President and Congress.

Under the new law, when the President used the veto, another clock would start for Congress to either override the veto, or pass changes that would again get sent to the President for approval. In either case, however, Congress would only be able to discuss the objections the President sent back to them. They would not be able to do anything about the parts he passed, as those would now be law. That's a bad thing... Like, a really bad thing.

Let's use an example here. Let's say that in a rare case of bipartisanship, Congress passes a bill offering free college tuition to all Americans at any public university of their choice. To pay for that grant, Congress also includes a major tax hike in this very expensive bill. Of course, free college tuition is politically popular, but a tax hike is not. So the President passes the free tuition part and vetoes the tax part.

Now we have a problem. The President just vetoed the only funding source that Congress could agree on. Now they have to go back to the drawing board and find another way to pay for it, because free tuition is now the law and the only way around that is to pass a repeal bill (which the President would have no incentive to sign). And to top it off, they only have a limited window of time to do it.

In effect, the 1996 act made the President a de facto 3rd house of the Legislature (which is not the President's job), with the added power to "lock out" portions of the bill from being discussed further (something neither house of Congress has).

So I hope that everyone who reads this knows now how colossally bad an idea the line-item veto is in the American system. The Supreme Court made the right call to overturn it.

Also let's not forget that such a law represents a fundamental change to Article I of the Constitution, which requires a constitutional amendment; that can't be done through the ordinary lawmaking process.

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    Or for a more side-agnostic example: Group A proposes legislation. Group B has serious concerns but several individuals are found willing to go along with it if the legislation is amended to explicitly protect certain edge cases they feel are at risk. The amendments are added, the amended bill is passed -- and the President, who is a member of Group A, line item vetoes the protection clauses... And Group A "suddenly decides" they're not willing to vote to override the veto, because as far as they're concerned they got everything they wanted and nothing they didn't want. – Shadur Oct 6 '17 at 9:57
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The main reason is separation of powers and checks and balances.

The whole idea of how US government was designed in the Constitution is based on 3 branches of government which - in natural to humans desire to accumulate power for themselves - would check each other's power in a sort of zero-sum game.

In other words, Legislature is unlikely to do something that would diminish their power and increase Executive's power.

This (line item veto) is just one example of the latter - it would take a law introduced in legislature; to grant line item veto power. So they are unlikely to do so at their own power's expense.


At the more nuanced level, this would also up-end the current (and in my personal opinion, atrocious) way of legislating, where you get consensus by pork-giving-away stuff to congress-critters as part of a bill, to earn their vote/support.

President is likely to cut out these compromise items, for ideological or political reasons ("waste" for example falls into both of these in your example of Reagan). That is something no lawmaker would want.

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A key problem is the congress does not have the power to extend the constitutional powers of the executive. This was established in Marbury v. Madison (1803). The veto power is spelled out in the constitution. The President can veto a bill. He cannot veto part of a bill, and congress can't grant him that power. It would take a constitutional amendment.

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