Let presidents drain federal red ink

Washington's red-ink spending has long been an issue of possible damage to the economy and outsized government. Now, with one congressman in jail for taking bribes to influence the budget and perhaps others to be indicted, a moral wind is also blowing behind efforts to rein in federal spending.

One deficit-draining proposal was announced Monday when President Bush asked Congress to give the White House limited authority to veto individual items in spending bills. Like many presidents before him, he wants to be able to target the often-unnoticed funding measures slipped into bills and considered pork-barrel projects - items that might be voted down if a bright light were put on them and Congress had to consider each one on its merits.

In fact, the Bush proposal would do just that, forcing lawmakers to vote on a spending item that a president chooses to highlight for a singular vote. It's not exactly a line-item veto, the type of authority that the Republican-led Congress gave to President Clinton in 1996 and which allowed him to simply block spending on specific items. That kind of executive power over the federal purse strings was judged unconstitutional by the Supreme Court in 1998.

The court's objection to the line-item veto (which 43 governors already have) was that it gave the president "unilateral power to change the text of duly enacted statutes." The Bush plan would skirt that objection by letting a president return certain outlays for a special vote. A highway project, for instance, that would benefit a small number of people would need a vote to justify it, keeping the "power of the purse" with Congress.

Lawmakers have long practiced the art of mutual back-scratching to win pork for themselves or to hide it from public scrutiny. But with more money than ever being spent to influence Congress through campaign donations and lobbying favors, the appearance of corruption as well as corruption itself should compel Congress to accept the Bush plan.

Congress is already working on bills that would clean up so-called "earmarking," or measures slipped into bills that favor lobbyists' interests or a lawmaker's constituency. Many earmarks are valid as national priorities, but many are not - like those snuck into bills by convicted former Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham. The Bush plan would simply give the one person elected to represent the entire nation a more selective way to influence spending than just a veto over an entire bill.

Casting more sunshine onto legislative actions is necessary for a Congress held in such low esteem. (National Sunshine Week, sponsored by the American Society of Newspaper Editors, will be highlighted March 12-18 to support more open government.)

Moral outrage at Washington's money politics - the type seen in the perverse lobbying of Jack Abramoff, who has pleaded guilty to corruption-related charges - should provide a welcome incentive for Congress to refine its spending authority with White House guidance.

This and other deficit-reducing steps could help bring the federal red ink - that now consumes more than 3 percent of the US economy - down to a pale shade of pink, or perhaps even black.

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