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Clinton v. City of New York

Citation. 524 U.S. 417, 118 S.Ct. 2091, 141 L.Ed.2d 393 (1998).
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Citation. 524 U.S. 417, 118 S.Ct. 2091, 141 L.Ed.2d 393 (1998).

Brief Fact Summary.

Congress enacted the Line Item Veto Act which allowed the President to cancel provisions of newly enacted bills, leaving the rest of the bill intact.  The Presentment Clause, however, allows the President to return only the entire bill before it becomes a law.

Synopsis of Rule of Law.

Congress may not alter the procedures set forth in the Presentment Clause without amending the Constitution.


Congress enacted the Line Item Veto Act in 1997.  The Act gave the President the power to cancel three types of provisions of bills that had been signed into law:  “(1) any dollar amount of discretionary budget authority; (2) any item of new direct spending; or (3) any limited tax benefit.”  If the President chose to cancel a provision, he was required to determine that the cancellation would “(i) reduce the Federal budget deficit; (ii) not impair any essential Government functions; and (iii) not harm the national interest.”  Finally, he would have to notify Congress of his decision to cancel a provision within five days.  The cancellation would take effect unless Congress enacted a “disapproval bill.”  The President could not cancel a disapproval bill, but he could veto it.

Pursuant to the authority granted to him in the Act, President Clinton canceled certain tax provisions in newly enacted bills.  The City of New York sued, alleging that the Act was unconstitutional.


Whether the Line Item Veto Act violated the Presentment Clause.


JUSTICE STEVENS holding:  Yes.  Under the Constitution, the President may only “return” a bill pursuant to his powers set forth in the Presentment Clause.


Justice Breyer

Justice Breyer argued that the Line Item Veto Act did not violate the Presentment Clause.  In doing so, he rebuked the majority’s literalist approach.  He reasoned that, when the United States was founded, Congress could have authorized the President to select certain provisions by placing each provision in separate bills, thus subjecting each to a Presidential veto.  Today, however, congressional acts are too comprehensive to separate into tens of thousands of separate bills.  In McCulloch v. Maryland, Chief Justice Marshall reasoned that the Constitution could not be limited to its literal text:  “To have prescribed the means by which government should, in all future time, execute its powers, would have been to change, entirely, the character of the [Constitution], and give it the properties of a legal code.”  Therefore, the Constitution leaves room for “institutional innovation.”  Further, the Act was not at odds with the literal text of the Presentment Clause because striking out select provisions was not the same as enacting, repealing, or amending a law.

Breyer further reasoned that there were no separation of powers concerns.  He argued that the Act did not enable the President to encroach on Congress’ power because Congress retained authority to say when the Act would not apply (by majority vote).  Nor could it be said that the Act aggrandized the President’s power because the power to cancel provisions is no different the power to spend or not spend, a power squarely within the President’s constitutional authority.

Justice Scalia

Justice Scalia, in embracing a more functional view of the Act, departed from his typical textualist approach.  He reasoned that cancelling certain provisions of an act was more or less the same as authorizing the President to “decline to spend” allocated funds, which would clearly be constitutional.  Although the two methods are technically different, the Presentment Clause was nonetheless fully complied with.


Justice Kennedy

Justice Kennedy wrote separately to address Justice Breyer’s argument that the Act did not threaten the liberty of individual citizens.  In Kennedy’s view, any violation of separation of powers puts liberty at stake because “liberty demands limits on the ability of any one branch to influence basic political decisions.”


The Court found critical differences between the procedures to return a bill outlined in the Presentment Clause and those outlined in the Line Item Veto Act.  The Constitution’s return process take place before the bill becomes a law and requires the President to return the entire bill.  Conversely, the Line Item Veto Act authorized the President to cancel bills after they were enacted and authorized him to cancel them in part.  Thus, the Act violated the Constitution.

In invalidating the Act, the Court rejected two arguments from the Government.  First, the Government argued that by canceling certain provisions, the President was merely exercising the discretionary authority granted to him.  In advancing this argument, the Government relied on the Court’s holding in Field v. Clark, 143 U.S. 649 (1892).  In Field, the Court upheld an act that allowed the President to suspend a tariff exemption if he found that the country which exported the product imposed duties on the United States that were “reciprocally unequal and unreasonable.”  The Court found the Line Item Veto Act distinct from the one in Field for three reasons.  First, in Field, the President’s suspension power was contingent upon a condition (a possible unreasonable tariff) that did not exist when Congress enacted the Act.  Conversely, President Clinton canceled certain provisions five days after Congress enacted them,  and the conditions had not changed in the few days after their enactment.  Second, in Field, the President had a duty to suspend if certain events occurred.  In the Line Item Veto Act, cancelation was left to the unqualified discretion of the President.  Finally, in suspending a tariff exemption, the President was executing a congressional policy.  By canceling a provision of an Act, however, the President was rejecting congressional policy.

The Government next argued that the authority to cancel tax and spending items was functionally the same as declining to spend money or declining to implement certain tax measures.  In rejecting this argument, the Court acknowledged that Congress had granted the President broad discretion in the past to spend appropriated funds.  Unlike these earlier situations, however, the Line Item Veto Act gave the President “the unilateral power to change the text of duly enacted statutes.”  Congress could not grant the President this power.  The only way to change the President’s role in the lawmaking process is to amend the Constitution.

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