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DeMint Offers Veto Alternative

When President Bush called on lawmakers to grant him line-item veto authority Monday, he couched his request as a measure to battle excessive spending. But one Senate Republican is now urging the White House to take on Congressional earmarks in a slightly different fashion: by simply ignoring them.

Pointing to a technicality of the appropriations process, Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) wants the Bush administration to utilize a “virtual” line-item veto. Under DeMint’s plan, the president would direct agency chiefs to ignore spending directed by committee reports that accompany legislation but are not included in the text of the spending bills themselves.

“These non-legislated earmarks are not legally binding, and the administration has the authority to stop them,” DeMint said in a statement. “President Bush should instruct his cabinet to ignore wasteful non-legislative earmarks and reserve the funds for their core missions.”

Although he expressed support for Bush’s veto proposal, the Senator’s office suggested the existing mechanism would be more effective.

“This would make it much harder for Congress to add wasteful earmarks and spend more than is truly needed,” DeMint added.

DeMint cited a Congressional Research Service memorandum issued to House and Senate offices Monday. “Earmarks that appear in committee reports and the statements of managers do not legally bind agencies, unless text in a statue provides that they shall have the force of law,” the memo stated.

While acknowledging that the legal basis for DeMint’s argument is accurate, representatives for both the House and Senate Appropriations panels asserted the reports are needed to provide agencies spending “flexibility.”

“[Hurricane] Katrina is a classic example where the Army Corps [of Engineers] used money from a variety of places to respond to an emergency,” said House Appropriations spokesman John Scofield. “You want the agency to have that flexibility.”

A Senate Appropriations spokeswoman offered an example where funds were transferred between projects on a non-emergency basis.

According to a letter to a Senate Appropriations subcommittee in late 2005, the Corps shifted money from a project in North Cove Harbor, Conn., to fund a dredging contract in the state’s Norwalk Harbor.

Moreover, while line-item veto authority would require the White House to target specific items — under the plan put forth Monday, both chambers would consider legislation to formally rescind spending on those areas cited by the president — a “virtual” veto could be essentially unrestricted.

“The problem is it’s hard to pick and choose what you ignore and what you don’t,” Scofield said. “It’s a slippery slope.”

In the meantime, the CRS memo notes that many agencies may be hesitant to buck Congress: “These documents, do, however, explain Congressional intent and frequently have effect because ‘an agency that fails to ‘keep faith’ with the Congress may find its next appropriation reduced or limited by line-item restrictions.”

Also on Tuesday Reps. Jack Kingston (R-Ga.) and Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) announced they will sponsor Bush’s proposal in the House. Sens. Bill Frist (R-Tenn.), Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and John McCain (R-Ariz.) have sponsored the bill in that chamber.

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