Veto That Waste

Posted February 3, 2009 at 4:00pm

The Supreme Court certainly did the right thing in 1998 when it declared the Line Item Veto Act of 1996 unconstitutional. But the seemingly insatiable Congressional urge to earmark and otherwise waste money suggests that an alternative is needed.

The issue arises anew with Roll Call’s exploration last week of the extensive connections between Rep. Alan Mollohan (D-W.Va.) and recipients of his earmarking and donors to his campaigns, with news of FBI raids on defense contractors receiving earmarks from Rep. John Murtha (D-Pa.), and widespread criticism of the contents of the House and Senate versions of economic stimulus packages.

What’s more, House appropriators are due to release a $410 billion 2009 omnibus spending bill in March sure to be chock-full of new special-interest spending provisions.

Budget watchdogs will try to flag them to the extent they have time — inflicting further damage to the reputation of Congress — but if past patterns hold they will be pushed through the House with few or no opportunities for amendment.

House rules call for the Appropriations Committee to release the bill 48 hours before it’s voted on, but last year’s $600 billion “minibus” bill, containing the only three 2009 appropriations yet passed by Congress, was made public at 2 a.m. on the day it was voted on by the House.

As we’ve said many times, Members of Congress are sent here to represent their constituents’ interests, including economic development in their states and districts.

Moreover, earmarks represent only 1 percent of federal discretionary spending. And the chairmen of the House and Senate Appropriations committees have pledged to reduce earmarking next year to half its 2005 level.

But the pattern of abuse that led to the 2006 Abramoff scandal — earmarks fed to campaign donors — persists. It’s not illegal unless a quid pro quo can be proved, but it holds Congress up to disrepute. And it surely wastes money.

President Barack Obama has pledged to crack down on waste, but multiple items in the stimulus bills passed by the House and pending in the Senate are providing convenient targets for attack by his critics.

The Supreme Court struck down the 1996 line-item veto because it violated the Presentment Clause of the Constitution, which holds that a bill passed by Congress must be signed or vetoed in its entirety.

Conceivably, Obama can exercise what amounts to informal line-item veto authority by insisting that his Democratic allies pull indefensible items out of various bills.

But it’s also time for Congress to revisit the oft-proposed idea of “enhanced recission,” a constitutional form of line-item veto whereby the president would send lists of items he wants to kill — both spending items and tax breaks — for mandatory up-or-down votes by Congress.

With the federal debt likely to approach $2 trillion this year and the national debt to exceed $11 trillion, Congress and the president need to assure a doubting — and paying — public that the money they spend is not being wasted.