Balancing Act

There's a lot of moments from the Republican debate I could fact-check, dispute, and tear apart for my many blog readers (all 12 of you). But while there has be article after article about Marco Rubio's flip-flopping, Donald Trump's sexism, and the Christie/Paul debate, no one has written about the incredibly interesting and sexy issue of John Kasich and balancing the federal budget.

If you watched the debate, you may remember John Kasich, current governor of Ohio, touting numerous times that he balanced the federal budget. It's certainly correct that John Kasich was the Chairman of the Budget Committee in 1997, which was the last time we had a balanced Federal budget. It's true that this was the first time the United States had a balanced budget since 1970. It's true there was a Republican-controlled Congress at the time. And yes, it's true that Bill Clinton was the President the last time the Federal budget was balanced.

It's also true that the Federal government will probably never have a balanced budget again. President Obama won't be able to do it, Hillary Clinton won't be able to do it, and John Kasich won't be able to do it, no matter how much he likes to think he could.

This isn't because America isn't receiving enough taxes. It's not because we're spending too much on the military, or entitlement programs, or domestic programs. Yes, working to curb our spending may help, more taxes may help, but the budget wasn't balanced because of taxes and spending cuts. The budget was balanced because of a line-item veto.

A line-item veto is exactly what it sounds like. It allows executives to veto certain parts of the bill, while passing the bill as a whole. So if a Republican Congress included a provision to defund Planned Parenthood in the national budget, a president who had line-item veto power can veto that provision and pass the budget. Or, in more practical economic terms, a president can veto certain projects or programs in the budget, to cut out wasteful spending, but pass the budget as a whole.

You can imagine how this might help balance a budget. Instead of forcing all 535 members of Congress to renegotiate and pass a whole new budget, just to eliminate several pet projects, the president can just veto wasteful spending programs, or policy amendments that have nothing to do with the budget. It's an excellent tool for managing the budget, which is why many state governors have the ability to use a line-item veto.

The President, however, no longer has that power. For years, presidents had fought for the privilege of a line-item veto, and only in 1996 was legislation providing a line-item veto passed by Congress. President Clinton was able to implement it in 1997, which lead to his balanced budget in 1997.

But all good things must come to an end. In 1998, the Supreme Court, in a 6 to 3 decision held that the line-item veto violated the "constitutional requirement that legislation be passed by both houses of Congress and presented in its entirety to the president for signature or veto." Lawmakers said they would try to find a constitutional way to pass the law, but so far, the line-item veto has never returned.

Could the budget be balanced without a line-item veto? Possibly, but I don't know for sure, as it has never been done before. Any presidential candidate who brags about being able to balance the budget needs to be asked how they plan to do it without a line-item veto. And John Kasich, specifically, should be asked how he plans to balance the budget again, now that there is no more line-item veto, and much of his past experience with a balanced budget is rendered useless.

First Published: August 13, 2015