- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 21, 2006

In September 1994, Republicans running for the U.S. House of Representatives unveiled their campaign platform dubbed the “Contract With America.” Item number one on the agenda included a line-item veto, which would give the president the power to cancel any “line-item” appropriation. In 1994, the last year Democrats controlled the House, there were a total of 4,126 earmarks (specific, lawmaker-proposed designations in appropriations bills), according to the Congressional Research Service. Last year, the 12th year of uninterrupted House rule by Republicans, CRS tallied 15,268 earmarks, according to the National Journal. Last week, the Wall Street Journal reported that lawmakers stuffed more than 1,500 new earmarks totaling nearly $1 billion into a $68 billion spending bill for the Treasury, Transportation and Housing and Urban Development departments.

Clearly, this pattern of earmark explosions hardly conforms to the fiscal discipline envisioned by the “Contract With America,” the first provision of which also promised a vote on a balanced budget amendment. Indeed, earmarks have become so entrenched among the vast majority of Republicans and Democrats that even an otherwise admirable fiscal conservative like Mike Pence of Indiana took umbrage recently when a reporter, with undisguised contempt, challenged him over his celebratory press release bragging to his constituents about the 11 earmarks ($16 million, including “$3 million in funding to extend the Cardinal Greenway recreational trail”) he crammed into last year’s transportation bill.

Today the House is scheduled to revisit the line-item veto, which Congress first passed in 1996 pursuant to its “Contract With America” commitment. (Two years later the Supreme Court struck it down on constitutional grounds because it “impermissibly upsets the balance of powers [between Congress and the president] so carefully prescribed by its Framers.”) Wisconsin Republican Rep. Paul Ryan, the sponsor of the Legislative Line Item Veto Act of 2006, insists it is constitutionally “airtight” because Congress would retain the final say on the relevant legislation. With the support of four Democrats, it passed the House Budget Committee earlier this month on a bipartisan 24-9 vote.

Under Mr. Ryan’s bill, after signing appropriations acts and tax and entitlement legislation, a president would have 45 days to propose canceling various line items in the bills. For each bill, the president could establish up to five veto packages (or 10 packages for an omnibus reconciliation bill). Congress could not amend the packages or divide them into subsets. Nor could the Senate filibuster the consideration of a package. Congress would have to vote on each package of cancellations within 14 legislative days after the president submitted it. Whereas the 1996 line-item veto required each body of Congress to override the president’s line-item vetoes with two-thirds majority votes, the new law requires only a simple majority vote to reject a package of cancellations proposed by the president. There is a six-year sunset provision for the bill.

We are under no illusions that the Ryan bill is the complete answer to Congress’s earmark addiction. Indeed, the liberal Center on Budget and Policy Priorities recently argued that the president “could, if he chose, leave all earmarks in place while canceling all funding for the 91 programs he proposed to eliminate” in his latest budget. That may be the best argument for the Ryan line-item bill.

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