Lawmakers attempt variation on line-item veto

WASHINGTON -- Every year, the U.S. Department of Education spends $9 million on whaling museums earmarked in four states: Alaska, Hawaii, Massachusetts and Mississippi.

Presidents George W. Bush and Obama have proposed eliminating the program, but Congress keeps funding it. Without a line-item veto, the president must spend the money.

It's the kind of spending that some in Congress hope to root out with the modification of an old idea: the line-item veto.

The proposal, called "expedited rescission," gets around the legal problems that doomed the last line-item veto. The U.S. Supreme Court held in 1998 that a line-item veto is unconstitutional because the Constitution says only that the president may sign or veto a bill — not pick it apart.

The line-item bill is part of a package of 10 budget changes unveiled Wednesday by House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, R-Wis. Other ideas: a two-year budget, more congressional oversight of spending and ending automatic inflationary increases built in to discretionary spending.

Under the limited line-item veto, the president would sign the bill but could send one or two packages of spending items back to Congress. Congress would then vote on them within 45 days, and there would be no amendments or filibusters.

President Obama generally supports the idea and proposed a similar measure last year. How would the president use the new powers?

Meg Reilly, a spokeswoman for the Office of Management and Budget, said she couldn't name hypothetical line items the president would send back. "But certainly anything that would qualify as an earmark or that has been identified by the administration recently as an area to reduce spending and cut government waste" could be targeted, she said.

Obama asked Congress to cut $24 billion in discretionary programs in his 2012 budget.

One example: the "Exchanges with Historic Whaling and Trading Partners" program, which the Obama administration says bypasses the competitive grant process and duplicates other funding sources. The line item has survived two of its sponsors, Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, and Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass.

Supporters of the line-item veto admit it won't put a dent in the $15.1 trillion debt. "It's not really about a money-saving thing. It's about changing the way you do business. Things can't be slipped into bills as quietly as they did before," said Maya MacGuineas of the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget.

"What we think this will do is it will put a chilling effect on people who are playing these games in Congress," Ryan told the Wisconsin Radio Network last week. "It will embarrass a lot of the pork out of these spending bills and end this practice, which has been going on for far too long."

Ryan has proposed the veto before, but the idea is gaining bipartisan steam. The top Democrat on the House Budget Committee, Chris Van Hollen of Maryland, is a co-sponsor. A similar measure in the Senate also has bipartisan champions: John McCain, R-Ariz., and Tom Carper, D-Del.

Other changes offered by House Republicans Wednesday are bipartisan:

•A two-year budget. Congress is supposed to pass a budget each year but rarely does. Moving to a two-year cycle could free up more time for Congress to do oversight on the spending it approves.

•The budget as law. The budget Congress passes is little more than a congressional resolution. Giving it the force of law would allow the president to veto it — but could provide the framework for budget negotiations earlier in the year, away from shutdown deadlines.

•More transparency. Ryan wants to move the Postal Service and other government-chartered enterprises into the budget and more realistically account for the costs of loan programs by taking the risk of default into account.

Louis Fisher, a scholar with the Constitution Project who has testified before Congress on the budget process, said most of the proposals are gimmicks — including the line-item veto.

"To me, it's a disgusting idea," he said. "It's a cheap and easy thing for members to do. But it weakens Congress. And to have this very romantic view of the president as a better guardian of the Treasury, I just don't think that's the case."