If you were to throw a brick and fatally wound one of the most vehement supporters of a Constitutional Convention for Rhode Island it’s likely with their dying breath they would whisper into the ear of their broken-hearted loved one a simple phrase: “the line-item veto.” And just as their last words would be wasted on such a paltry matter, so to would Rhode Island’s Constitutional Convention be wasted if its crowning achievement was to be the line-item veto.
Line-item veto proponents suggest that it would be a way to rein in the power of the legislature’s Democratic supermajority. The problem, as they perceive it, is because of the supermajority, governors fail to use their veto power on budgets because they know the Democrats would immediately overturn the veto. With a line-item veto in place, so the reasoning goes, governors could strike down parts of the budget (or other bills) and the legislature wouldn’t overturn the veto because… laziness. That is it. That is the sole reason the General Assembly wouldn’t meet to overturn the Governor’s item veto. And while you could gamble this could work now, all it takes is a legislature with a bit of discipline to make the line-item veto seem laughably weak.
This argument might be convincing if Rhode Island’s governors routinely vetoed budgets and those vetoes were routinely overturned by the legislature. But they’re not, and there’s a reason for that. When the budget is hammered out, the Governor has a seat at the table. Rhode Island’s system of government represents the supremacy of compromise and consensus. The Governor proposes the budget. The House and Senate substantially rewrite it. All three sides (Governor, House leadership, and Senate leadership) get together and decide what can pass both chambers and not get vetoed. That is the budget that gets passed. That is the budget we get.
The line-item veto would do nothing to change this process of compromise. If the Governor wants the conversation to be about a specific part of the budget, say the part the whole budget is being vetoed over and make legislators defend it. Gubernatorial cowardice is a problem with personnel, not a problem with the structure of government. Let’s call it what it is: something which appeals to those who wish to add one more hurdle for legislation to clear. It is another chokepoint in an already cumbersome legislative process filled with redundancy, speed bumps, and invented tradition.
“But 44 states have the line-item veto!” say proponents. Yes, and 31 states ban marriage equality. Of the six states that don’t have a line-item veto, there is no pattern about their economic situation that screams for its need. There is no correlation between a state’s unemployment and the line-item veto. There is no correlation between corruption within a state and the line-item veto. Here is the sum total of pressing problems the line-item veto would solve: zero.
And yet proponents always identify the “problem” they truly wish to solve: the Democratic supermajority in both chambers of the General Assembly. And yet, the supermajority is only a problem because of gubernatorial timidity. It is an untested supermajority. Every time a veto happens, it’s a chance for a faction within the General Assembly to capitalize. A truly savvy governor would realize this and use it, they would align with a faction within the Assembly’s majority and push that faction to eke out concessions to support any veto override.
If people really want to solve the “problem” of the Democratic supermajority’s power, there are plenty of structural changes they could make to Rhode Island. They could change its voting system, they could lower the bar for the formation of new political parties, they could change how redistricting is handled, they could change the structure of the Assembly itself. With a Constitutional Convention, the only limits are our own imaginations.
If the line-item veto is the best that can be mustered by the imaginations of its proponents, then we’re not only facing a “crisis of leadership” within the General Assembly, we’re facing one within all of Rhode Island.