President Obama is now asking for a modified version of the line-item veto, called the Reduce Unnecessary Spending Act of 2010 (PDF). This law would give the President the ability to force the United States Senate to take a guaranteed up-or-down vote on a set of budget cuts without amendments. This request by the President to gain more of the legislative branch's power is deeply disturbing on many levels.
The ever-expanding executive
First, it is another power grab by the ever-expanding executive branch. The Constitution clearly states that laws and decisions about spending should come from the legislative branch. The duty of legislating should be vested squarely with the duly elected legislators. The idea of the President writing bills, then forcing Congress to vote on them, is highly troubling. Should Congress become nothing more than a veto point on laws written by the President?
Perversions of the Constitution
If the Senate behaved like the Founders intended, the system would accommodate a President suggesting budget cuts--with Congress then having the prerogative to decide if it will write those suggestions into law. The administration’s proposal, however, is a blatant attempt to get around the filibuster and its 60-vote threshold without properly addressing the broken Senate rules at the heart of the problem.
The filibuster is close to the top of the long list of the Senate’s chronic problems. Not only is it not part of the Constitution, the Constitution is clear that all it should take to pass a law in the Senate is a simple majority. The original rules of the Senate did not even allow for a filibuster. The “unlimited debate rule” that is now used to stop the Senate from debating bills while it brings our government to a crawl is a clear perversion of our democracy.
The filibuster is a perversion of majority rule and representative democracy. It is causing endless problems and prevents Congress acting in the manner it should. Yet the solution is not another perversion of the Constitution, awkwardly grafting expanded powers for the executive branch onto this broken system. We don't need the President to carve out a niche so that select laws he writes avoid the filibuster. If we believe the threat of the filibuster is preventing Congress from cutting wasteful, redundant or corrupt programs, then the solution is to eliminate the filibuster, not to give new powers to the President.
Joe Lieberman gets to keep his anti-progressive veto
From a progressive point of view, this creates another way around the 60-vote filibuster threshold, which is only meant to be used for slashing government programs or cutting taxes. (The other way is budget reconciliation.) Republican goals would require only 51 votes in the Senate, which would be fine except it leaves in place the huge 60-vote hurdle for anything progressives want.
This stacks the deck against progressive change. Filibusters from Republicans and conservative Democrats like Joe Lieberman, Blanche Lincoln and Ben Nelson could still stop reformers’ goals, such as ending “don't ask don't tell” and enacting ENDA, immigration reform, EFCA and more. It looks like this law couldn't even help deficit-reducing ideas like drug re-importation, a public option, Medicare buy-in and closing tax loopholes.
A simple majority is the solution
I'm inclined to agree with the underlying thinking behind this law. The filibuster is a corrupting interest in the Senate. The ability of one Senator to clog our entire government and of 41 Senators to kill a law is causing huge problems, including preventing the elimination of wasteful spending. But the solution is not to enact another simple-majority carve-out rule in the Senate. The solution is not to vest even more power in an ever- expanding executive branch. Don't pile one corruption of the intent of the Constitution on top of another, like some perverse stack of pancakes, and pretend you are fixing something.
If the filibuster is preventing legislative changes, then eliminate the filibuster. Restore the Senate as the majority-rule body it was meant to be, preventing a handful of Senators from abusing the rules to protect earmarks. Don't just come up with convoluted special tricks to get around the Senate's broken, byzantine rules.
Expanding the power of the executive branch is terrible enough by itself. But redesigning the rules to make it easier to advance conservative goals while inhibiting progressive reform is an unbelievably disappointing request by a Democratic President.