Throughout last year’s debate over the line‐item veto, I was frequently asked by reporters whether Bill Clinton would use it to terminate Republican pork‐barrel projects. I always unhesitatingly responded: I certainly hope so.
Once in a blue moon in American politics a new law works almost precisely as intended. Such has been the case — at least so far — with the line‐item veto. This year President Clinton has used his new budget‐cutting tool to execute scores of white‐elephant congressional spending projects, saving taxpayers an estimated $2 billion over five years. Virtually none of these projects were in the national interest.
Ironically, it is this early success of the line‐item veto that may prove its undoing. Congress, it turns out, likes the line‐item veto far better in theory than in practice. Sen. Trent Lott concedes that there are fewer Republican supporters of the line‐item veto today than there were this time last year. Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Ted Stevens complains that Clinton’s line‐item vetoes have been a “raw abuse of power.” Stevens is threatening to push for the veto’s repeal. Robert Livingston, Chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, charges that President Clinton is using the veto as “a raw exercise of power meant to threaten and intimidate.”
What is giving congressional Republicans heartburn is that the veto is being used by a Democratic President to trim hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of lard from the budget, and some of it is Republican lard. So far, Clinton has used the veto to eliminate funding for a $600,000 solar waste‐water treatment 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 Chamber of Commerce in Carter County, Montana; $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. It is precisely oinkers like these that enraged the public and led to enactment of the line‐item veto in the first place.
In fact, the only legitimate complaint about Bill Clinton’s use of this veto is that he has done it too sparingly. This year’s Energy and Water bill alone contains 423 unrequested projects — conveniently, just about one for every district.
Clinton canceled just 8 of them; most of the other 415 deserved the same fate. If, as President Clinton has suggested, the criteria for wielding this veto power are that the program in question is one that should be funded at the local level if at all, or that it has costs that exceed public benefits, then the savings could be orders of magnitude higher than the $2 billion achieved so far.
Congress, it turns out, likes the line‐item veto far better in theory than in practice.
In fact, that much could probably be saved by carving spending earmarked for just one lightly populated state: Alaska. Alaska’s Ted Stevens has been busy using his exalted status as Appropriations Committee chairman to convert Fairbanks into the pork capital of America. Congressional Quarterly reports that Stevens is fast gaining a reputation as a bigger pork‐barrel spender than his famed predecessor, Sen. Robert Byrd of West Virginia. Into this year’s Military Construction bill Stevens inserted $1.4 million for a skating rink and $300,000 for a car wash in Fort Wainwright; $650,000 for an Arctic Germplasm Repository; and $1 million to market Alaskan salmon. Apparently the GOP’s theme of making government smaller and smarter applies only to the contiguous 48 states. On Capitol Hill, members are calling Stevens’s chase for tax dollars the second Alaskan gold rush.
In some ways it’s not fair to pick on Sen. Stevens. House Budget Committee Chairman John Kasich recently confessed that “the gig is up around here when it comes to actually cutting programs and saving money.” No kidding. Throughout this past summer and fall Congress has been engaged in a pork‐barrel free‐for‐all. Here are some depressing examples:
-The Wall Street Journal reports that the Environmental Protection Agency will receive $3.2 billion for construction of water and sewer projects, $200 million of it earmarked to key congressional districts — even though the GOP has argued since the early Reagan years that the wastewater‐treatment program should be halted entirely and that polluters, not taxpayers, should pay for sewage clean‐up.
-The housing bill has $100 million in targeted “economic development” projects — many going to affluent suburbs.
-Hospital construction for veterans will be double the Clinton Administration’s request even though Republicans used to argue correctly that there is no need for new hospitals.
-No blade of grass in America is safe from the cement trucks while Rep. Bud Shuster is head of the Transportation Committee. Shuster’s highway bill is the most expensive public‐works legislation in American history — and it is crammed with several hundred targeted “demonstration” projects. Earlier this year the Committee was expanded to more than sixty members — the largest committee ever — to accommodate the endless demands by congressmen to get bicycle paths and parking garages built in their districts.
And many of those congressmen are Republicans. This, of course, is precisely the sort of irresponsible fiscal behavior that got Democrats run out of town three years ago. It is a sad state of affairs for fiscal conservatives when the only line of defense against white‐elephant spending is Bill Clinton’s pen.
Congressional Republicans and Democrats alike are now secretly rooting for the Supreme Court to rule the line‐item veto unconstitutional. Because of technical problems with the law, it may well be overturned. If the Courts don’t act, Congress may kill what it now views as a Frankenstein monster. All that is preventing its immediate repeal is that congressional leaders know that they would expose themselves as frauds and hypocrites.
On its merits, the line‐item veto should be preserved. The critics were wrong: the line‐item veto does save money; it does short‐circuit preposterous spending projects that offend the sensibilities of taxpayers.
And that is why almost all of Washington is in such a hurry to get rid of it.