Saturday, November 13, 2004

Carving the Pork

I've often wondered: Where in the heck did that line-item veto get off to? Now I know:
In response to taxpayers’ concerns about waste and abuse in the federal budget, Congress passed the line-item veto in 1996, which ultimately went into effect in January of 1997. President Clinton used the power 82 times that year to strike specific wasteful pork projects in larger spending bills, saving taxpayers nearly $2 billion. However, in 1998, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled 6-3 that the line-item veto was unconstitutional. Specifically, the High Court held that the law gave too much power to the executive branch to usurp the "power of the purse" delegated to Congress in the U.S. Constitution.

Justice John Paul Stevens, authoring the majority opinion for the Court, wrote, "The act gives the president unilateral power to change the text of duly enacted statutes." In his concurrence, Justice Anthony Kennedy went further. "Failure of political will does not justify unconstitutional remedies. …The Constitution's structure requires a stability which transcends the convenience of the moment." Justices Antonin Scalia and Stephen Breyer, joined by Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, dissented.

Within hours of the Supreme Court’s ruling, Senator Dan Coats (R-IN), at the time a leading proponent of the line-item veto, proclaimed, "The Supreme Court has resurrected a pig that we thought was dead."

Deficit hawks in Congress have been contemplating new versions of the line-item veto capable of withstanding constitutional scrutiny ever since the Supreme Court ruled. But substantive discussion of the issue has never really materialized, in large part due to weakened political will that resulted from several years of budget surpluses.

That is, until now.

At his first post-election press conference last week, President Bush put the issue front and center, explaining that he is committed to working with Congress to revive a line-item veto that would "pass[ ] constitutional muster" and would help him work with the legislature to "maintain budget discipline." In fact, the Administration’s budget and legal teams have been working feverishly to do just that.

Included in the President’s fiscal 2005 budget is a provision that administration officials believe "would correct the constitutional flaw in the 1996 act." The language explicitly ties the veto to "deficit reduction," enabling the President to strike new appropriations and certain tax breaks if he determines they’re not "essential government priorities." The money saved would remain in the general treasury, and could not be shifted to fund other projects.

Opponents, led by Senator Robert Byrd (D-WV), argue that the President’s plan does nothing to address the High Court’s concerns. But that’s for the Court to decide, not Senator Byrd, who Citizens Against Government Waste, an organization that tracks pork-barrel spending every year, has aptly nicknamed the "King of Pork," and who was also the first to point the finger at President Bush for expanding deficits.

Hopefully the Congress can come up with something, so that pork spending like this can never see the light offered by indoor-rain forests.