Trimming Congress's Bacon Fat

Congress "porked out" at record levels this year, with some 10,656 pork projects totaling $22.9 billion - a 13 percent increase over last year, according to Citizens Against Government Waste.

Alaska was the biggest recipient of pork in the giant $388 billion omnibus spending bill that passed last week. Take $900,000 for an aquarium in Ketchikan or $950,000 for a rec center in Anchorage, as just two examples.

Yet one tested way to keep individual members of Congress from loading pork into spending bills (thus adding to the deficit) is to give the president the ability to cross out these items when they come to his desk for approval.

In 1996, a Republican-controlled Congress passed the Line Item Veto Act, even though they knew their rival, Bill Clinton, would be the first president to use it. In 1997, Mr. Clinton used the line-item veto 82 times, cutting some $2 billion in the process.

But in 1998, the Supreme Court struck down the Act, noting the Constitution specifies that legislation passed by both houses of Congress must be presented in its entirety to the president. Another high court concern: The line-item veto gives the executive branch increased power over the purse - Congress's domain.

Historically, presidents have had more power over funding than now, and one way to achieve at least similar results to the line-item veto would be to live up to the spirit of that precedent.

Beginning with Thomas Jefferson and up through Richard Nixon, a president enjoyed "impoundment" power, or the ability to not spend money if he didn't find it in the national interest. But a liberal spending Congress didn't like Nixon using it, and took the power away.

Still, Congress allowed the president an option known as "rescission." This works a bit like a line-item veto: The president rescinds the pork, but sends the entire bill back to Congress for an up-or-down vote. The option is weaker than a line-item veto because Congress can override the spending cuts with a simple majority.

Congress could create a constitutionally acceptable substitute for the line-item veto by giving the president "enhanced rescission" authority. The simple-majority override would still apply, but "enhanced" authority would at least speed up Congress, requiring it to act on a president's cuts within 60 days, or else they take effect.

Many lawmakers are pressing President Bush to bring down the deficit. That might set the stage for passing at least some version of a line-item veto. In fact, Mr. Bush recently indicated he's interested in reviving the idea. With the nation's debt at $7.38 trillion and growing, he should.

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