Commentary

Save the Line Item Veto

By Stephen Moore
August 6, 1998

The Supreme Court has now ruled the line item veto unconstitutional. The pro-spending lobby in Washington is uncorking bottles of champagne. But oddly enough, there is quiet celebration on Capitol Hill as well — among Democrats and Republicans alike — now that pork projects all over the country will now be spared presidential cancellation. In fact, last December, Sen. Robert C. Byrd (D-W.Va.), long the prince of pork on Capitol Hill, declared that if the court strikes down the line item veto, it would be “my Christmas wish come true.”

Merry Christmas, Sen. Byrd.

Unfortunately, Congress’s gain is the taxpayers’ loss. One year’s experience with the line item veto taught us all an important lesson: the line item veto works. In 1997 President Clinton used this new veto 82 times to delete unnecessary expenditures in 11 spending bills. The savings to taxpayers total nearly $2 billion over five years. True, in a $1.75 trillion annual budget, this is not a huge sum. But even by Washington standards, $2 billion is still real money — and a whole lot of pork.

None of these vetoed projects served the national interest. Clinton wielded the veto to eliminate funding for a $600,000 solar aquatic wastewater treatment demonstration project in Vermont; a $2 million Chena River dredging project in Fairbanks, Alaska, to benefit a single tour boat operator; a $1 million corporate welfare grant to the Carter County Montana Chamber of Commerce; $900,000 for a Veterans Administration cemetery the VA says it doesn’t need; $1.9 million for dredging a Mississippi lake that primarily serves yachts and pleasure boats; $500,000 for the Neabsco Creek Project in Virginia for removal of creek debris; and other such absurdities.

As the list below shows, pork is still being served in great quantities and large servings in Washington these days.

The tragedy of the Supreme Court’s decision is that the most recent spending bill enacted by Congress, the 1998 Highway Bill, is a monument to the need for a line item veto. This roads bill contains a record 1,500 pork projects. That’s 3 slabs of bacon for every congressional district. These “demonstration projects” include such necessities as bike paths, hiking trails, auto museums, parking garages and wasteful mass transit projects. More than $5 billion could have been saved on this bill alone with the line item veto.

The American public has long favored the line item veto precisely to purge the budget of exactly this kind of irresponsible spending.

The only problem with Bill Clinton’s use of the line item veto is that he used it too sparingly. Bill Clinton had the opportunity to terminate hundreds of other preposterous spending items with billions of dollars of additional savings. The 1998 Energy and Water bill, for example, contained 423 unrequested projects — conveniently, just about one for every district. Clinton cancelled just 8 of them. Most of the other 415 deserved the same fate.

Senators John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Russ Feingold (D-Wis.) have done heroic work in exposing billions of dollars of obnoxious items in last year’s spending bills. Why, for instance, didn’t the president cancel the $286,000 for research to enhance the flavor of roasted peanuts? Or the $250,000 for pickle research? Or the $700,000 to build an “aquatic and fitness center” at Cedar Crest College in Allentown, Pa.? Or the $1.35 million to renovate the Paramount Theater in Rutland, Vt.? Or the $2 million for the renovation of an art gallery in Buffalo? Or the $500,000 for the study of livestock pollution (cow dung) at Tarleton State University? Or … well, you get the point.


The Supreme Court has ruled this particular version of the line item veto unconstitutional. But it has not said that the line item veto is de facto unconstitutional.

The Supreme Court has ruled this particular version of the line item veto unconstitutional. But it has not said that the line item veto is de facto unconstitutional. Congress can and should immediately enact a version that will pass constitutional muster. The line item veto is fixable.

But will a Republican Congress reenact the line item veto now that they have seen many of their own strips of bacon pulled from bills? To their credit, they kept their promise to enact a line item veto in 1996 even though the first president to use it would be their adversary, Bill Clinton.

Many GOP lawmakers have turned against the item veto since then not because it has failed, but because it has worked all too well. If Republicans still believe in fiscal sanity and tightfistedness in government, they will find a way to enact a constitutional item veto — a power that 43 governors have.

On its merits, the line item deserves to be preserved. The critics were wrong: we now have documented evidence showing that the line item veto does save money; it does repel preposterous spending projects that offend the sensibilities of taxpayers.

My estimates are that a president that looks more skeptically at waste in government than Bill Clinton — someone like, say, Ronald Reagan — could save taxpayers about $5 billion a year with a line item veto.

But it is precisely because the item veto saves money and repels pork that members of Congress — Republicans and Democrats alike — will not be inclined to let this genie out of the bottle ever again.

>A Brief Sample of Pork Spending in the FY 1998 Budget

>* $286,000 for research to enhance the flavor of roasted peanuts;
* $250,000 for pickle research;
* $3.3 million for shrimp farming studies in Hawaii, Mississippi, Massachusetts, California, and Arizona;
* $700,000 for an “aquatic and fitness center” at Cedar Crest College in Allentown, Pa.
* $1.5 million for the Southeastern Pennsylvania Consortium for Higher Education to collect data for social public policy.
* $1.2 million for a business innovation laboratory in Hoboken, N.J.
* $1.35 million to renovate the Paramount Theater in Rutland, Vt.
* $2.5 million for a New Mexico Hispanic cultural center.
* $950,000 for a fish hatchery in Ruskin, Fla.
* $1.4 million for the Lake Tahoe, Calif., intermodal center.
* $2 million for a New Orleans streetcar named “Desire.”
* $3 million for Reno, Nevada, buses.
* $51 million for a regional bus plan in Houston.
* $2 million for the renovation of an art gallery in Buffalo.
* $500,000 for continuation of a study of livestock pollution (cow dung) at Tarleton State University.
* $1.5 million for the National Alternative Fuels Training program.
* $1 million for the World Congress on Information Technology in Fairfax, Va.
* $150,000 for development of the George C. Marshall Memorial Plaza in Uniontown, Pa.
* Renovation of a theater in Windber, Pa.
* $100,000 for hops research in the Pacific Northwest.
* 950,000 for rice research in Arkansas and Texas.
* $250,000 for food fermentation research in North Carolina.
* $500,000 for honey bee research in Texas.
* $1.2 million for potato research.
* $150,000 for the National Center for Peanut Competitiveness.
* $100,000 for maple syrup research in Vermont.
* $33 million for wind energy research.
* $55 million for the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor.

Stephen Moore is director of fiscal policy studies at the Cato Institute.