The false promise of a line-item veto

March 13, 2006|By STEVE CHAPMAN

CHICAGO -- In the last five years, the federal budget has done a good impression of major-league sluggers, bulking up to such frightful proportions as to be almost unrecognizable. Baseball responded to the excess girth by cracking down on steroids. President Bush, however, wants to try stomach-stapling. Last week, he urged Congress to give him a line-item veto so he can "reduce wasteful spending."

In reality, he's about as likely to cut spending as he is to give the next State of the Union address in Aramaic. Since he took office in 2001, federal outlays have increased by $845 billion a year - a 27 percent jump after adjusting for inflation. Says budget analyst Brian Riedl of the conservative Heritage Foundation: "He's expanded government more than any president since Franklin Roosevelt."

A line-item veto by itself does nothing to curb fiscal indiscipline. It's not the equivalent of pouring all your booze down the drain. It's more like buying a bottle-emptying machine so you can pour some of it out at some future date.

The beauty of this proposal from a politician's point of view, says Chris Edwards, a budget expert at the libertarian Cato Institute, is that "there's no heavy lifting involved." You get credit for taking action to reduce outlays without antagonizing all the people who get upset when you actually reduce outlays.

Does Mr. Bush really want to put Washington on a diet? His latest budget could be taken as evidence that he does, since it would increase outlays by less than needed just to account for inflation. But this total doesn't include all the funds that almost certainly will be needed for Iraq. Nor does it count all the extras that Congress is likely to tack on and Mr. Bush is likely to accept.

The president already can veto any spending bill that exceeds his budget request. But Mr. Bush has never vetoed a spending bill or any other bill. His father, who was not known as a fiscal bulldog, used the veto 44 times in just four years.

As it happens, what Mr. Bush asked for is something less than advertised. Most governors have the power to delete specific items from measures passed by the state legislature. Without a similar check, Congress can attach lamebrained projects to measures the president wants, forcing him to either accept the waste or kill the whole bill.

But when Congress gave President Bill Clinton a line-item veto in 1996, the Supreme Court struck it down. Mr. Bush's version wouldn't let him veto items - merely send particular expenditures back to Congress, which would then be required to vote on them individually. This procedure is supposed to embarrass lawmakers into abandoning some of their most indefensible outlays.

Maybe it would. But Mr. Bush already can ask (though not compel) Congress to vote on rescinding individual items - something he apparently doesn't do very often. When I asked his Office of Management and Budget for a list of "rescissions" he has proposed, I was told there is no such list. One of the few times he used this prerogative was to excise $2.3 billion from a package of Hurricane Katrina aid last year.

So Mr. Bush rarely asks for rescissions and he never vetoes spending bills. Why would he use a line-item veto when he doesn't use the powers he has?

One justification for the change would be that it couldn't do any harm to give him another tool to impose fiscal discipline. In truth, there is some potential harm. Any enhancement of the president's authority can be used for bad purposes as well as good ones.

Suppose Mr. Bush, armed with a line-item veto, wanted to force Congress to approve more spending for, say, his Medicare prescription-drug program. One way to coerce individual members to go along is to threaten to kill projects in their home districts. So the result could be to enlarge the budget rather than shrink it.

If Mr. Bush wants to cut spending, all he has to do is muster the will to stand up to Congress. A line-item veto is not what you need if you want to cut spending. It's what you need if you don't.

Steve Chapman is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune. His column appears Mondays and Wednesdays in The Sun. His e-mail is

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