Over the past few
years, Congress has abused the federal budget process to reward
influential constituencies (and congressmen themselves) with
pork-barrel earmarks. While Congress has shown no inclination to
control this appetite, the White House has been alarmed by the
wasted money and has been looking for remedies.
In his recent State of the Union address, President Bush expressed
concern about Congress' increasing appetite for pork and proposed
that "we can tackle this problem together, if you pass the
line-item veto." With a line-item veto, the president could delete
the offending portions of legislation sent him for signature and
approve the rest. Under his current powers, a presidential veto is
an all-or-nothing event, and a veto of a budget bill could lead to
But a recent report by the Library of Congress argues that the
president already possesses powers similar to those of a line-item
veto. As the LOC report states: "Earmarks that appear in committee
reports do not legally bind agencies, unless text in a statute
provides that they shall have the force of law. In the absence of
such language agencies generally are not bound by their
Inasmuch as 12,469 of the 13,012 earmarks in the 11 appropriations
bills for fiscal year 2006 fall into this vulnerable category, the
president is under no legal obligation to fund them and could
delete them with his "virtual" line item veto.
The key difference between the virtual and the real is that the
virtual eliminates the earmark but not the money, while the real
would eliminate both, thereby reducing the deficit. The White House
having been so advised, the only thing that stands between spending
taxpayer dollars on these 12,469 earmarks is the president's
Among the 12,469 wasteful projects that would be at risk of
$500,000 to Folkmoot USA (North Carolina) for Appalachian folk
programs, including forest crafts.
$1 million for Suwanee County, Fla., dairy- and poultry-waste
$242,000 to the National Wild Turkey Federation based in
Importantly, the money Congress would have forced federal agencies
to spend on wasteful projects could be redeployed to more
cost-effective programs within the same agency. Examples of such
$500,000 to plan for high-speed rail near Carriere, Miss.
$3 million for Paducah, Ky., waterfront development.
$300,000 for the Walla Walla, Wash., watershed alliance.
All this money could instead be reallocated to more pressing needs
like Katrina relief or anti-terrorism measures.
Also in play are the earmarks in the transportation budget. As
traffic congestion has worsened throughout the country, the
president could cancel frivolities such as these:
$100,000 for the Mason County, W.Va., tourism mural project.
$150,000 for the Winooski East, Vt., pedestrian path.
$500,000 for the West Vail (Colo.) Pass Vegetated Wildlife
$2 million for Greenville, Pa., streetscape enhancements.
Congress then could use the money saved for road-capacity
improvements that benefit the beleaguered motorist whose fuel taxes
fund the highway program--and the pork.
Likewise, the earmarks delegated to HUD undermine the amount of aid
available to the poor at a time when many believe there is a
shortage of affordable housing. By refusing to fund them, the
president could redeploy the money to cost-effective housing
assistance programs like rent vouchers. With so many poor families
still stuck on public-housing waiting lists, is it appropriate for
Congress to force HUD to spend on purposes like these?
$500,000 on the Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco.
$1 million on the San Francisco Conservatory of Music.
$2 million on the Richard M. Nixon Library and Birthplace in
Many would think not, and the president should use his leadership
to improve housing by eliminating waste.
The lists of wasteful pork go on and on like this through the
hundreds of pages of this year's appropriations bills. While some
of the 13,012 listed pork projects are for comparatively modest
sums, all together they total $67 billion for this year alone.
Also, with 96 percent of these earmarks included only in the
accompanying report language--which the executive branch agencies,
remember, are not legally bound to fund--the taxpayer dollars that
could be better spent would be in the tens of billions of
The legal opinion contained in the LOC report was requested by Sen.
Jim DeMint, R-S.C. Two days after the report was published, DeMint
was joined by four of his senatorial colleagues from both parties
in sending a letter to Bush urging him "to use the virtual
line-item veto authority that you already have by instructing your
Cabinet to ignore wasteful earmarks and direct this funding toward
their core mission."
While the report and letter received limited media attention, the
two together represent an extraordinary opportunity for the
president. In one instance, he could fulfill the wish he made to
Congress, and in the other he could strike fatal blows against
wasteful spending and the corruption it has spawned.
Indeed, given the president's inability to get spending under
control during his term in office, and the harm runaway budgets
inflict on citizens' wellbeing, the senators' letter offers Bush a
defining moment on the domestic-policy battlefront.
In 1979, Britain's powerful labor unions challenged Margaret
Thatcher's plan to restore economic vitality to a once-great
nation. They expected her to cave, as many of her predecessors had,
but she fought back and won, and the consequence for her nation was
two-and-a-half decades of unprecedented prosperity.
President Reagan confronted a similar challenge in 1981, when the
federal air-traffic controllers engaged in an illegal strike. He
fired the strikers, and his actions contributed to an era of
domestic labor peace and record-breaking job creation.
The LOC ruling, and the bipartisan letter from the five senators,
offer this president a similar opportunity to define his
leadership. With 12,469 earmarks waiting annihilation, this summer
could be remembered as the season President Bush returned the
nation to a course of fiscal sanity.
Utt is the Herbert and
Joyce Morgan Senior Research Fellow in the Roe Institute for
Economic Policy Studies.