Commentary

Why Congress Hates the Line-Item Veto

By Stephen Moore
This article originally appeared in Investor’s Business Daily.

In a few weeks the U.S. Supreme Court will decide the fate of the presidential line-item veto law. Sen. Robert Byrd, D-W.Va., says that if the court strikes the law down, it will be “my Christmas wish come true.”

Sen. Byrd, long the prince of pork on Capitol Hill, is not alone in this sentiment. It’s been just over a year since Republicans fulfilled their promise in the Contract With America to give the president the line-item veto. But already many GOP lawmakers secretly fear they’ve created a Frankenstein monster. Evidently they like the line-item veto more in theory than in practice.

What is it about this budget-cutting tool that is suddenly giving Congress heartburn? Simply put, the line-item veto has worked as intended. Maybe too well for some lawmakers.

President Clinton used this new veto 82 times in ‘97 to delete needless 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 isn’t a huge sum. Still, even by Washington Standards, $2 billion is real money and a whole lot of pork

None of those vetoed projects served thc national interest. Clinton wielded the veto to wipe out 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 Chamber of Commerce in Montana; $900,000 for a Veterans Affairs cemetery the VA says it doesn’t need; $1.9 million for dredging a Mississippi lake that serves mostly yachts and pleasure boats, $500,000 for the Neabsco Creek Project in Virginia for removal of creek debris; and other absurdities.

And the pork keeps coming. This year, Congress is nearing passage of a highway bill with 1,453 special demonstration projects for bike paths, hiking trails, auto museums, parking garages and wasteful mass transit projects. That’s three slabs of bacon for every congressional district on average.

Americans have long favored the line-item veto precisely to purge the budget of such boondoggles.

My primary complaint with Clinton’s use of this veto so far is not that he’s used it too recklessly but too sparingly.

Clinton had the chance to end hundreds of other preposterous spending items. amounting to billions of dollars in additional savings. The ‘98 Energy and Water bill, for example. contained 423 unrequested projects, just about one for every congressional district. Clinton canceled just eight. Most of the others deserved the same fate.

Sens. 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 to renovate a Buffalo, N.Y., art gallery? Or the $500,000 for the study of livestock pollution, i.e., cow dung at Tarleton (Texas) State University? And so on.

As this sample list of unproductive federal spending demonstrates, we need the presdent to have the line-item veto authority, but we also need a president who isn’t reluctant to wield this power - early and often.

If the Supreme Court rules the line-item veto unconstitutional, Congress should immediately enact a version that wil1 pass constitutional muster.

The line-item veto is not inherently unconstitutional. It’s fixable. But will a GOP-controlled Congress re-enact the line-item veto now that it has seen some of its own members’ bacon sliced from spendug bills? If Republicans don’t, they will expose themselves as fiscal hypocrites.

On its merits, the line-item veto law should be preserved. The critics were wrong. We now have evidence showing that the the line-item veto does save money; it does repeal preposterous spending projects that offend the sensibilities of taxpayers.

After one year, the line-item veto has shown tself to be one of the taxpayers’ best friends. Lord knows, the taxpayers need as many friends as they can get i i Washington these days.

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