Line-Item Veto: Why Wait?

President Bush has proposed what is in effect a line-item veto in his Legislative Line-Item Veto Act of 2006. His proposal is a little different from traditional line-item veto proposals, under which Presidents would be allowed to excise parts of spending bills they don’t like. Bush’s legislation would enable the President to freeze funds for a line item and request that Congress (on an expedited basis) vote it down.

Many in Congress have long resisted granting the President a line-item veto, believing it cedes political power to the Executive. But the uproar over last year’s record-breaking levels of pork in the highway and energy bills as well as money-for-votes scandals have perhaps altered that dynamic. As Rep. Paul Ryan (R.-Wis.)—a key architect of the President’s proposal—has observed, “The spending scandals in Congress and the public’s outrage on those brought us to this point, which means we have a good chance of winning.”

A number of fiscal conservatives have already dismissed the Bush proposal as a public-relations effort to distract from a terrible record on spending. Total spending this year will be an incredible 45% higher than in 2001. To date, the administration has seemed more interested in “spinning” the dismal federal budget numbers than actually addressing the problem. Even the Washington Post is skeptical of Bush’s playing the role of fiscal conservative: “Mr. Bush is, to put it mildly, an imperfect champion of any measure to discipline out-of-control spending; he hasn’t once used the veto he already has, while signing into law plenty of pork-filled spending bills.” You have to go back 125 years to find the last President (Garfield) who never vetoed a bill.

But the administration insists the proposal is real, as is the President’s new-found commitment to rooting out wasteful spending. If so, Bush has an easy way to demonstrate it. He shouldn’t wait for this measure to be enacted. Why doesn’t he start today by publishing a list of 50 or 100 or 1,000 pork-barrel projects Congress should repeal? Put the onus on Congress to defend these measures.

Of course, no matter how things go with this line-item veto proposal, it will not be the cure-all for federal budget problems. Used effectively, a line-item veto might cull some low-priority spending from spending bills. It might dissuade members of Congress from putting pork into these bills in the first place. And it will add a needed dose of accountability to the budget process. But it won’t do anything to help solve Washington’s biggest budget problem: entitlements.

Discretionary spending is a shrinking segment of the federal budget. In 1970, discretionary spending made up 62% of federal outlays. By 2010, it will have fallen to 32%. Meanwhile, “mandatory” spending has risen dramatically, and it cannot be touched by the line-item veto. The Congressional Budget Office now projects that the combined costs of Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid and interest on the debt will rise from 8% of GDP to about 21% of GDP in 2075. That is higher than total spending for the entire federal government today.

Even the best outcome for Bush’s proposal would be just one small step towards restoring fiscal sanity in Washington.