Line-Item Veto Would Expedite a Rescission Collision

By

"You gotta have a gimmick if you wanna get ahead," according to the Broadway musical "Gypsy." "Do something special, anything special." That advice applies in equal measure to the business of politics. And procedural politics in Congress is historically rife with gimmicks.

I do not mean to question their legitimacy or utility, nor the sincerity or motives of their proponents. Gimmicks can be very useful devices in attracting attention to a problem and support for a particular solution. Gimmicks are a way to frame issues in flashing lights and to generate debate, controversy and activity around them. But gimmicks also can be an avoidance mechanism, a diversion from actually solving the underlying problem.

Perhaps no problem has generated more gimmicks than budget deficits. The so-called "legislative line-item veto" is a case in point. The principal vehicle supported by a bipartisan group of House Members led by Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), and endorsed by President Bush, is actually an expedited rescission bill (championed by Blue Dog Democrats back in the early 1990s). A purer legislative line-item veto pushed through by Republicans in 1996 as part of their "Contract with America" was declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court in 1998.

There are some critics who charge that even the weaker, expedited rescission bill currently being considered is an irresponsible abdication to the executive of Congress' powers of the purse. I strongly disagree (with one significant caveat I will discuss later). I do think, however, there are other societal and institutional implications to the approach that should be taken into account before rushing into its alluring embrace.

The Congressional budget process, established 32 years ago in the Congressional Budget and Impoundment Control Act, included the first restrictions on the president's power to impound funds. Under the Budget Act, the president may propose cancellation of enacted spending, but absent Congressional approval, the spending must go forward. In short, it now takes a new law to cancel spending in a previous law. This can hardly be called an abdication of either Congress' lawmaking or spending powers. In fact, Congress has been loudly praised for reasserting its powers and prerogatives by enacting the Congressional Budget Act, including its statutory denial of unilateral, presidential impoundment authority.

So, how does the proposed "expedited rescission" approach differ from what is now on the books? First, it not only covers appropriations measures but any item of direct spending (entitlements), or any "targeted tax benefit." Second, any amounts enacted in a rescission bill can only be dedicated to deficit reduction, and not to offset other spending increases. Finally, a rescission bill submitted by the president must be introduced and is afforded special rules in both chambers to assure its speedy consideration without possibility of amendment. Both chambers must complete action on a rescission approval bill within 10 days after its introduction.

Two significant problems result. Under the legislation as introduced, the president may withhold funds proposed for rescission for up to 180 days, presumably even if one chamber votes to reject the rescission (under current law the funds may only be withheld for 45 days of continuous session). If this six-month freeze is not a drafting error, a rescission submitted in April could effectively cancel spending for that item for the remainder of the fiscal year, even if Congress has, in rejecting a rescission bill, clearly signaled its intent that the funds be spent. This could throw federal agencies and state entities into a financial management black hole. Similarly, a six-month withholding of entitlements and targeted tax benefits would be even more devastating for individuals who depend on them to make ends meet or to run their businesses.

The second problem is institutional, and this is where that caveat comes into play. Since the president is not required to bundle his rescission proposals according to the appropriations (or other) bills in which they were enacted, he could literally send up scores of separate rescission bills each session, individually targeting each earmark or other item he considers wasteful. And it would be to the president's advantage to do so since it is easier to win on individual project bills that disadvantage just one district than to win on an omnibus rescission bill that includes a plethora of projects that affect nearly every Member of Congress.

This single-project approach could tie Congress in knots with required debates and votes daily over a period of months at the same time it is trying to process the regular 11 appropriations bills for that session. Congress already has difficulty in enacting all its regular spending bills prior to the beginning of the fiscal year on Oct. 1. The only thing this new process will expedite is placing recissions on a collision course with Congress' regular workload, practically guaranteeing a major derailment around Christmas.

The proposed rescission process will cost far more time and energy than it is worth. It would be much better for Congress to deal with wasteful spending upfront, when it first considers bills, than wait for the president to second guess it later. Gimmicks are no substitute for guts when it comes to making real spending cuts.

Don Wolfensberger is director of the Congress Project at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and former staff director of the House Rules Committee.

Copyright 2006 (c) Roll Call Inc. All rights reserved.

EMAIL UPDATES

Experts & Staff