Obama proposes to curb spending bills. No more bridges to nowhere?

US presidents have long tried to obtain some form of line-item veto power. Obama's proposal could help eliminate pork-barrel projects, but it would also mark a big change in the balance of powers.

J. Scott Applewhite/AP
President Barack Obama shown in this photo addressing the graduates of the US Military Academy, in West Point, N.Y., Saturday, proposed on Monday to curb spending bills.

In the name of budget discipline, President Obama on Monday proposed legislation that would make it easier for US chief executives to excise parts of spending bills they don’t like.

Such enhanced rescission power could help eliminate the pork-barrel projects that lawmakers append to must-pass appropriations bills, according to White House officials. But it would also mark a profound change in the balance of powers between the executive and legislative branches of the US government and thus may run into concerted congressional opposition.

Asked about the bill’s prospects in a Monday conference call with reporters, White House budget director Peter Orszag noted that some lawmakers already have proposed a similar move.

Lawmakers “who are most concerned about our fiscal trajectory ... are eager to look for tools that will help us reduce unnecessary spending,” he said.

American presidents have long tried to obtain some form of line-item veto power – the ability to strike single items from spending bills. Many state governors in the United States already have such authority.

In 1996, a Republican-dominated Congress approved a limited line-item presidential power, in which individual White House cuts automatically took effect unless overturned by a two-thirds congressional vote. In 1998, the Supreme Court ruled this measure unconstitutional.

Under the Obama proposal, the president could take two months to pore over spending bills that have already been signed into law. He could then send Congress a package of cuts, or rescissions, which Congress would have to accept or reject in its entirety. Lawmakers would have to put the package to an up-or-down vote within a specified time frame.

“What this bill tries to do is create an efficient, streamlined [rescission] process,” Mr. Orszag said.

This process would be constitutional, say administration officials, because Congress would get to vote on the proposed cuts before they take effect. In that sense, say the officials, it would not usurp their powers.

Pork-barrel projects would be squarely in Mr. Obama’s rescission cross hairs, said Orszag. The Transportation Department appropriations bill last year, he noted, contained some $293 million worth of items added by individual lawmakers that circumvented departmental money-granting formulas.

If a president could strike down such items, lawmakers eventually might give up adding them in the first place, Orszag said.

“It would not be a panacea, but it would be an important additional tool,” he said.

It would also give the White House greatly enhanced leverage over individual representatives and senators, as the Oval Office would have significant influence over whether their pet funding projects lived or died.

In the long-running struggle for relative power within the divided US government, this would significantly shift the balance toward the White House.

For this and other reasons, guardians of congressional authority such as Sen. Robert Byrd (D) of West Virginia blocked a vote on a similar proposal made by Sen. Judd Gregg (R) of New Hampshire in 2007.

Of course, whether the bill passes or not, it will also allow the White House to portray itself as fiscally responsible as the season of appropriations-bill votes approaches.

This week, Obama’s Democratic allies in Congress are pushing a $170 billion tax and spending bill that would extend unemployment benefits and aid to state governments, as well as help doctors who would otherwise see a large cut in Medicare reimbursement fees.

Votes on a separate war funding bill, plus various other measures with large price tags, loom shortly thereafter.

“There is no substitute for a real budget that reins in overall federal spending,” said House minority leader John Boehner of Ohio in a statement responding to the administration proposal.


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