By DALE McFEATTERS
It’s rather late in the game for President Bush to get tough on federal spending, which has risen by nearly half on his watch, but the president, as promised, has proposed a useful approach — the line-item veto.
He has asked Congress for this authority before, but this time his proposal is in the form of specific legislation and it has the support, however sincerely or insincerely, of the Republican congressional leadership.
If Congress does give the president this new authority, it would constitute a significant reversal by lawmakers. In 2004, the House soundly defeated, 174-237, a much-diluted form of line-item authority.
Presidents have long wanted the authority to kill individual items in spending bills, and in 1996 Congress, as part of the House Republicans’ "Contract With America," gave it to President Bill Clinton, who used it successfully to kill some spending, less successfully on others. For example, Congress quickly overrode his attempt to strike 38 military construction projects. But the Supreme Court ruled in 1998 that the line-item veto was unconstitutional.
This newest version would allow the president to single out those spending items he wants killed and then Congress would have 10 days to say yea or nay. The president currently has rescission authority. He can ask Congress to revoke certain spending, but Congress can ignore him. This proposal would require a vote.
The line-item veto by itself will not cure federal overspending or have much impact on total spending, which is why it is not worth a constitutional amendment. But two developments have made it an import tool.
Increasingly, Congress gets behind in its budget work and wraps up its unfinished business into huge, omnibus money bills that may contain egregious spending. But because of the lateness of their arrival on his desk, they are awkward for the president to veto in their entirety.
And, increasingly, those bills are larded with earmarks, individual lawmakers’ spending projects added outside the regular legislative process. Since 1995, when the Republicans took control of the House, the number of earmarks has more than tripled to over 14,000, and their cost almost doubled, to $53 billion.
If only by forcing Congress to think twice about funding projects, the line-item veto would be a valuable step toward restoring systematic discipline to federal spending.
(Contact Dale McFeatters at McFeattersD(at)SHNS.com.)