July 12, 2006

July 12, 2006 | Commentary on Political Thought

By all means, Mr. President, use your virtual line-item veto now

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 agency shutdowns.

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 declarations."

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 acquiescence.

Among the 12,469 wasteful projects that would be at risk of presidential defunding:

$500,000 to Folkmoot USA (North Carolina) for Appalachian folk programs, including forest crafts.

$1 million for Suwanee County, Fla., dairy- and poultry-waste treatment.

$242,000 to the National Wild Turkey Federation based in Illinois.

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 questionable projects:

$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 Overpass.

$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 California.

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 dollars.

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.

Ronald Utt is the Herbert and Joyce Morgan Senior Research Fellow in the Roe Institute for Economic Policy Studies.

About the Author

Ronald D. Utt, Ph.D. Herbert and Joyce Morgan Senior Research Fellow

First appeared in Fredericksburg.com