- The Washington Times - Monday, March 13, 2006

A bipartisan group of senators says President Bush is ignoring a tool that he already has to cut special-interest pork-barrel spending and should use that even as he fights to win line-item-veto power from Congress.

Mr. Bush can legally brush off many earmarks, or pork projects, and five senators said he should start there.

“If your administration would reject even some of the most wasteful earmarks, it would ensure that scarce federal funds are spent on national priorities, and it would make it substantially more difficult for Congress to load up annual spending bills with earmarks,” they said in a letter responding to Mr. Bush’s call last week for lawmakers to create the line-item power.

Every spending bill that passes Congress includes a report, which lawmakers use to clarify parts of the bill and, in the case of spending, urge the administration to dedicate the money to a particular cause.

The reports are not debated or voted on by Congress, and Sen. Jim DeMint, the South Carolina Republican who led the letter-writing effort, said those earmarks never get scrutiny. According to a new Congressional Research Service report, 95 percent of earmarks in the 2006 spending process were add-ons in reports.

“Both branches need to step up to the plate here,” Mr. DeMint said. “We need to do more in Congress, but we need help from the administration not to lay down and roll over when we send over these earmarks the agencies say they don’t want.”

He pointed to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration as an agency so flooded with earmarks that it has trouble meeting its basic goals. Mr. DeMint said if it was not bound by earmarks, NOAA could use that money on core missions instead.

Also signing the letter were Republican Sens. Tom Coburn of Oklahoma and John McCain of Arizona and Democratic Sens. Evan Bayh of Indiana and Russell D. Feingold of Wisconsin.

Administration officials said ignoring the earmarks doesn’t actually reduce spending. Because the money was appropriated, the administration would still spend it somehow, though not the way Congress directed.

Office of Management and Budget (OMB) Director Joshua B. Bolten said they also worry that if they start ignoring those earmarks, Congress would just start putting them into the actual bills.

“Earmarks are likely just to drift over more into legislative language, and, B, ignoring an earmark in report language doesn’t necessarily get rid of the spending,” he said, adding that the new line-item powers would help correct that.

But conservatives, who also support the new line-item veto, said using the existing powers would send a message that the president is serious about cuts and would deter future earmarks. They also worry that Congress will not be able to pass line-item powers this year.

They said there are other tools already open to Mr. Bush, including budget rules that allow the president to send up rescissions packages.

The administration, though, said Congress isn’t required to vote on the package, and OMB officials said the process hasn’t been used successfully in 30 years. Mr. Bush’s new line-item veto proposal would force the issue by blocking the spending until Congress votes.

OMB press secretary Scott Milburn said they are also trying to use the president’s yearly budget proposal to force spending cuts. Last year, Mr. Bush proposed 154 program cuts and Congress agreed to 89, saving $6.5 billion — up from seven cuts and $366 million the year before.

This year, the administration has requested 141 cuts totaling $14.7 billion.

Conservatives still want Mr. Bush to use the biggest tool available — a full veto.

“A presidential veto — not just a line-item veto, but a presidential veto — is one of the most powerful tools of reform in Washington,” said John Hart, spokesman for Mr. Coburn.

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