In the last five
years, the federal budget has done a good impression of major
league sluggers, bulking up to such frightful proportions as to
be almost unrecognizable. Baseball responded to the excess girth
by cracking down on steroids. President Bush, however, wants to
try stomach stapling. This week, he urged Congress to give him
a line-item veto so he can "reduce wasteful spending."
In reality, he's
about as likely to cut spending as he is to give the next State
of the Union address in Aramaic. Since he took office in 2001,
federal outlays have increased by $845 billion a year -- a 27
percent jump after adjusting for inflation. Says budget analyst
Brian Riedl of the conservative Heritage Foundation, "He's
expanded government more than any president since Franklin Roosevelt."
Bush has shown himself
capable of dramatic reversals before. When he turned 40, he abruptly
gave up drinking and has been a teetotaler ever since. So this
proposal could indicate he's tired of hangovers and is ready to
swear off budgetary binging once and for all.
But a line-item veto
by itself does nothing to curb fiscal indiscipline. It's not the
equivalent of pouring all your booze down the drain. It's more
like buying a bottle-emptying machine so you can pour some of
it out at some date in the future.
The beauty of this
proposal from a politician's point of view, says Chris Edwards,
a budget expert at the libertarian Cato Institute, is that "there's
no heavy lifting involved." You get credit for taking action
to reduce outlays, without antagonizing all the people who get
upset when you actually reduce outlays.
Does Bush really
want to put Washington on a diet? His latest budget could be taken
as evidence that he does, since it would increase outlays by less
than needed just to account for inflation. But this total doesn't
include all the funds that will almost certainly be needed for
Iraq. Nor does it count all the extras that Congress is likely
to tack on and Bush is likely to accept.
The president can
already veto any spending bill that exceeds his budget request.
But Bush has never vetoed a spending bill or any other bill. His
father, who was not known as a fiscal bulldog, used the veto 44
times in just four years.
As it happens, what
Bush asked for is something less than advertised. Most governors
have the power to delete specific items from measures passed by
the state legislature. Without a similar check, Congress can attach
lamebrained projects to measures the president wants, forcing
him to either accept the waste or kill the whole bill.
But when Congress
gave President Clinton a line-item veto in 1996, the Supreme Court
struck it down. Bush's version wouldn't let him veto items --
merely send particular expenditures back to Congress, which would
then be required to vote on them individually. This procedure
is supposed to embarrass lawmakers into abandoning some of their
most indefensible outlays.
Maybe it would. But
Bush can already ask (though not compel) Congress to vote on rescinding
individual items -- something he apparently doesn't do very often.
When I asked his Office of Management and Budget for a list of
"rescissions" he has proposed, I was told there is no
such list. One of the few times he's used this prerogative was
to excise $2.3 billion from a package of Hurricane Katrina aid
So let's see: Bush
rarely asks for rescissions, and he never vetoes spending bills.
Why would he use a line-item veto when he doesn't use the powers
he already has?
for the change would be that it couldn't do any harm to give him
another tool to impose fiscal discipline. In truth, there is some
potential harm. Any enhancement of the president's authority can
be used for bad purposes as well as good ones.
Suppose Bush, armed
with a line-item veto, wanted to force Congress to approve more
spending for, say, his Medicare prescription-drug program. One
way to coerce individual members to go along is to threaten to
kill projects in their home districts.
So the end result
could be to enlarge the budget rather than shrink it. If Bush
wants to cut spending, all he has to do is muster the will to
stand up to Congress. A line-item veto is not what you need if
you want to cut spending. It's what you need if you don't.
2006 Creators Syndicate