Line- Item Pork Parer
Last month, the House passed earmark reforms to shine sunlight and scrutiny on individual spending provisions as they make their way through Congress. This week, when the House votes on the legislative line-item veto, all who favor greater transparency and accountability will have another chance to direct light where it is particularly needed: at the end of the congressional spending process.
As a member of Congress, there is nothing more frustrating than working to restrain unnecessary spending throughout the budget and appropriations cycle, only to see pork projects inserted into conference reports during final negotiations, when there's no opportunity to remove these boondoggles by amendment.
If the choice is between voting "aye" or "nay" on legislation that mainly funds priorities such as equipment for our troops but includes a few questionable projects, most will grit their teeth and vote to pass the measure. The president faces the same choice when a bill arrives on his desk for signature.
That's when having an extra layer of accountability -- and a mechanism for removing wasteful projects from finished bills -- can save taxpayer dollars. The version of the line-item veto we're pushing for will achieve this, while preserving Congress' constitutional powers and responsibilities. Simply put, our proposal would enable the president to put a temporary hold on wasteful items or targeted tax pork in bills he signs into law and send these line items back to Congress for an up-or-down vote.
For the president's rescissions to take effect, both the House and Senate must vote to approve his request. This is fundamentally different than the line-item veto that the Supreme Court struck down in 1998, which provided that presidential rescissions would become law by default unless Congress passed a motion of disapproval.
While the earlier version violated constitutional principles and shifted the balance of power from Congress to the president, today's variation on the line-item veto ensures that Congress remains the final arbiter of the contents of legislation. In fact, Charles Cooper, an attorney who argued before the Supreme Court against the previous line-item veto, has testified to the constitutionality of our legislative line-item veto at three congressional hearings this year.
The current approach keeps the power of the purse in Congress -- right where it should be -- and fixes the primary problem with the president's existing rescission authority. Though the president today can propose the rescission of wasteful spending items, there's nothing to guarantee Congress ever votes on such requests. During President Reagan's administration, Congress failed to act on more than $25 billion in rescission requests, and the historical ineffectiveness of the present system has deterred presidents from using it to rein in excess spending.
In contrast, our legislative line-item veto bill (H.R. 4890) requires Congress to vote on presidential rescission requests on an expedited time frame. Under this plan, the president would have a limited time after signing a bill to request that Congress rescind a particular piece of tax pork, a specific spending item or a package of spending items within that law. After receiving the president's request, the House and Senate would be required to have a clean, up-or-down vote with no amendments within 14 legislative days on whether to rescind the funding.
Perhaps the greatest benefit of this exercise is preventive: if a member of Congress knows he could be called to the floor of the House or Senate to defend spending on a project, apart from the cover of larger legislation, he's likely to become more discriminating about the items he proposes in the first place. At the same time, those who make legitimate spending requests should have no trouble defending them in front of their colleagues. By making ourselves more accountable and using this tool to combat wasteful spending, we can help restore Americans' faith in Congress, which has been shaken by earmark abuse. We must live up to the trust our constituents place in us and exercise extreme care with their tax dollars.
The legislative line-item veto is one part of a broader drive to bring greater transparency, accountability and fiscal discipline to Congress and change the culture in Washington from one that is institutionally biased toward spending to one that looks for every chance to save.
This spring the House has already passed earmark reform and a budget resolution that takes important steps to control spending, such as better budgeting for emergencies through a rainy day fund. This week we will vote on the legislative line-item veto, and we expect a vote in the near future to establish a sunset commission to review the effectiveness of federal programs and make recommendations about those that no longer fulfill their mission or are redundant.
By moving forward with these and other reforms, we can give Congress and the president the necessary tools to zero in on wasteful spending and infuse the budget process in Washington with opportunities to save money instead of loopholes that leave the system open to abuse.