Ryan Alexander is the president of Taxpayers for Common Sense, which works to end wasteful spending.
Each year, Congress passes reams of spending bills that are thousands of pages long. These bills fulfill their constitutional obligation to fund government, but are also littered with thousands of individual lawmakers’ spending requests. Very few, if any, members of Congress are familiar with all of the spending provisions contained in these bills. And not surprisingly, some provisions, like the infamous “bridge to nowhere,” become an embarrassment because they are so clearly a waste of taxpayer money, particularly when we are in the midst of two wars and have an exploding national deficit.
There is now a proposal before Congress that would give the president the ability to make Congress reconsider spending requests that the White House considers wasteful or duplicative. Commonly referred to as a line-item veto, this bill is different from the 1996 law which the Supreme Court deemed unconstitutional. It would strengthen the president’s rescissions authority to eliminate specific spending items. Congress should pass this much-needed reform because it will establish a useful tool to cut unnecessary government spending, without unconstitutionally impinging on Congress’s power of the purse.
Under the proposal, the president would have 45 calendar days after signing a bill to send Congress a package of specific rescissions to spending requests in the legislation. This package would have to come up for a vote and could not be amended. But unlike a traditional veto—which requires a two-thirds vote in both chambers to overrule the president—a simple majority in either chamber could reject the cuts. The president would be limited to a single package of rescissions per bill, applicable only to provisions in that bill. These rules would maintain the balance of power between the legislative and executive branches.
Currently, it is difficult to cut unnecessary spending, as few members of Congress will vote against entire appropriations bills because of wasteful earmarks or a handful of duplicative programs. Similarly, the president is loath to veto an entire package over a few wasteful provisions.
Obama’s proposal would increase the transparency and accountability of the budgeting process by giving the public more information about where their elected representatives stand on specific requests that are often buried in bills. It would also provide an opportunity for the administration and Congress to identify and cut duplicative or obsolete spending.
One of the usual criticisms of expedited rescission authority is that it will be wielded in a partisan manner by the president. This is a red herring: Public scrutiny and oversight would render partisan maneuvering unlikely. The bill would require all the information on the proposed rescission to be made public. If the president is using this budgetary tool simply to score political points, Congress and the public would quickly notice.
We found 9,499 congressional earmarks, worth $15.9 billion, in the fiscal year 2010 spending bills. Considering the yawning federal deficit, it is difficult to believe that majorities in both houses of Congress would vote for many of the current earmark requests if they were forced to reiterate their support under public scrutiny. Furthermore, all the cuts made should be dedicated to deficit reduction.
Congress and the Obama administration both need to take a hard look at the practices and options available to increase discipline in the spending arena. The Reduce Unnecessary Spending Act of 2010 must be enacted to provide another tool for eliminating and curbing wasteful spending.
Read why a line-item veto is a bad idea, by Norman Ornstein, a congressional expert and resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.