If ever there was a textbook example of why we need a line-item veto, the water projects bill that President Bush vetoed in its entirety is it.
The bill funds the Army Corps of Engineers, which currently has a project backlog of $38 billion. The Corps requested $4.9 billion for what it identified as necessary projects for this yearódams that needed immediate attention, for instance. But construction projects are dear to the hearts of members of Congress. They get to boast of bringing home the bacon, to cut ribbons at groundbreaking ceremonies, and, all too often, to get the project named for themselves, a common practice I find obscene. So the water projects bill is always as full of pork as a bratwurst. The bill as passed by the House funded $14 billion in projects, almost three times what the Corps asked for. The Senate funded $15 billion.
Once a bill passes both houses, it usually needs to go to a committee made up of members of both houses to reconcile the differences between the two versions. The final bill is then voted on by each house and sent to the White House if it passes, as it almost always does. When the water projects bill went to the committee this year, a funny thing happened. Since the House authorized $14 billion and the Senate $15 billion, one might think that the final bill would have authorized, say, $14.5 billion. But welcome to Washington: It authorized $23 billion.
In other words, $8 billion of pure pork was added to the already pork-laden bill behind closed doors with no debate whatever. The Presidentís veto is almost certain to be overridden. Pork, if nothing else in Washington, is a splendidly bipartisan affair.
Meanwhile, The New York Times yesterday reported that the military appropriations bill is also loaded with pork. The House version has 1,337 earmarks, not a single one requested by the Pentagon, which is not a branch of the federal government famous for self-restraint in the appropriations process. The cost would be $3 billion. The Senate has added $5 billion more. (The Times also points out, in great detail, how much of the money in these earmarks ends up being spent on lobbying for further earmarks and the fact that the companies favored by congressmen and senators to receive earmarks have a funny habit of seeing that the solons in Washington get handsome campaign contributions.)
So the next time you hear a member of Congress decry the federal deficit, donít believe a word of it. The Army Corps of Engineers requested $4.9 billion. Congress is cramming down its throat $23 billion. If the military appropriations bill pork is added in, thatís $26.1 billion over and above what was requested. That amounts to 15.6 percent of the federal deficit in fiscal 2007 just in those two bills.
Much of this grotesque corruption (not necessarily illegal, of course, although ask Duke Cunningham and Bob Ney how they like their accommodations in the federal penal system) stems from the early 1970s. Members of Congress, to be sure, have always been willing to spend the publicís money to ensure their own reelections, but the ending of the presidential power to impound funds (i.e., refuse to spend them) and the breakdown of the seniority system in Congress caused a collapse of discipline.
In the seniority system, the senior member of the majority party on each committee was automatically the committee chairman. Thus he didnít have to cater to other members of the committee in order to be elected chairman. He could hand out pork judiciously, if thatís the word. Once the seniority system ended, however, Congressional logrolling (you vote for my project and Iíll vote for yours) became more and more rampant, until it spun completely out of control in the last few years.
A line-item veto, in which particular appropriations could be struck from a bill before the President signs it, would end this at a stroke. As, Iíve said before, good ideas spread, and 43 states have given their governors the line-item veto. (The Confederate Constitution, by the way, also gave the executive the line-item veto.)
The President is the only one in Washington elected by the whole country (along with the constitutionally powerless Vice President), so he is the only one without parochial interests, the only one who looks at the budget, and the national interest, as a whole. Making him a major player in budget negotiations, which he isnít now, would go a long way toward establishing fiscal discipline.
With the publicís disgust at corruption in the last Congress, which resulted in the Republicans losing their majorities after 12 years, and the ratings of the current Congress, which make President Bush wildly popular in comparison, I would guess that the party willing to seize the issue and make a ďcontract with AmericaĒ that would offer specifics on how they would bring fundamental reform and transparency to Congress would do very well next November.
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