How ironic that the Supreme Court, which spent much of this century ignoring the exact wording of the Constitution, should pick it apart word for word to destroy the line-item veto, a much-needed tool to curb legislative excesses.
The Constitution, in Article 1, section 7, says Congress shall present every bill it passes to the President. "If he approve he shall sign it, but if not he shall return it . . . "Note the wording. Nowhere does it say the president can return part of a bill, and that was the sticking point for six of the nine Supreme Court justices. If only the court had been this concerned about detail when faced with recognizing a phantom right to an abortion.
We don't disagree with the idea that the court should carefully consider each word of the Constitution. We do, however, disagree with this particular reading. As Justice Antonin Scalia said in a long and stirring dissent, the court missed the point. The law, he said, was misnamed. It was not a line-item veto. It allowed the president to veto individual spending provisions, and that veto then could be overridden by a two-thirds vote of Congress.
To that we add only that the nation's founders probably never envisioned a Congress that would tack all sorts of unrelated pork-barrel projects to a measure, calling the entire amalgamated mess a single bill.
The court's decision Thursday likely ends the line-item veto debate forever, short of a constitutional amendment. That is unfortunate. Equally unfortunate is that its short history was marked more by politics than by a genuine concern about waste. President Clinton vetoed only small projects, carefully avoided those supported by fellow Democrats.
Even with that, however, the law showed it was not the awful thing some had envisioned. Rather than transcend politics, the line-item veto emphasized how interdependent the executive and legislative branches are. A president too willing to cut pork would face the prospect of losing legislation important to him. But this also meant the line-item veto didn't shift the balance of power the way its opponents feared. Each branch of government still had plenty of leverage against the other.
Now, after nearly a century of debate, the line-item veto has at last been put to rest. A power enjoyed by a majority of state governors no longer belongs to the president. Once again, the American people will have to rely solely on Congress to end wasteful spending, and the record in that regard is not encouraging.