WASHINGTON -- Barack Obama, an unbeliever genuflecting before the altar of frugality, is asking Congress, as presidents do, to give him something like a line-item veto. Coming in today's context of his unrelenting agenda of expanding government, his proposal constitutes a counterfeit promise to get serious about controlling spending and the deficit. His purpose is to distract the public while Democrats enact something like Stimulus III.
Obama's Reduce Unnecessary Spending Act confirms the axiom that the titles of bills, like the titles of Marx brothers movies ("Duck Soup," "Horse Feathers"), are utterly uninformative. The act would aggravate a distortion of the Constitution that has grown for seven decades, enlarging presidential power by allowing presidents to treat spending bills as cafeterias from which they can take what they like and reject the rest.
Under Obama's proposal, presidents would list dubious spending, then Congress would have to accept or reject, by a simple majority, his entire list, which could not be filibustered. This might, or might not, be constitutionally problematic.
It certainly would not reduce deficit spending: Under the president's proposal, if Congress kills the projects on the president's list, the budgetary allocation would not be reduced, so legislators could dream up new things on which to spend the money.
In 1996, when a Republican-controlled Congress gave President Clinton, by statute, a line-item veto, Pat Moynihan's intervention in the Senate debate began: "I rise in the serene confidence that this measure is constitutionally doomed." The Supreme Court proved Moynihan prescient.
That law's constitutional infirmity was that it empowered the president to cancel provisions of legislation. This violated the separation of powers by making the president's activity indistinguishable from making laws rather than executing them. The Constitution says "every bill" passed by Congress shall be "presented" to the president, who shall sign "it" or return "it" with his objections. The antecedent of the pronoun is the bill -- all of it, not bits of it.
Even if Congress enacted Obama's proposed "expedited rescission" (an existing rescission process enables presidents to recommend cuts), and even if the law passed constitutional muster, it would be inconsequential as a control on spending. Actually, it probably would make matters worse.
Today, 62 percent of federal spending goes to entitlements (56) and debt service (6). Both will be growing portions of budgets, and both are immune to any vetoes. Defense and homeland security are 21 percent of the budget and will be almost entirely immune. So the line-item veto's target would be at most 17 percent of the budget.
What about earmarks? If all 9,499 of last year's had been vetoed, this would have saved $15.9 billion, or a risible 0.45 percent of spending.
Furthermore, Obama's proposed law would encourage legislators to feel free to appropriate even more irresponsibly, because it would locate responsibility in the presidency. And presidents could decline to veto particular spending projects in exchange for the sponsoring legislators' support on other matters. When Congress gave Clinton the line-item veto in 1996, the year of welfare reform, Vice President Gore said Clinton would use the promise of not vetoing pet projects to leverage higher welfare spending.
Presidents resent having to choose complete acceptance or rejection of gargantuan spending bills. In 1789, the First Congress' only appropriations bill was 142 words long; Ronald Reagan argued for a line-item veto by brandishing a 43-pound, 3,296-page bill.
Although George Washington acknowledged that he must "approve all the parts of a bill, or reject it, in toto," he and most subsequent presidents considered appropriations permissive rather than mandatory. But after Watergate, Congress acted against the presidential practice of "impounding" -- not spending -- monies Congress appropriated.
Obama probably hopes his proposal will divert attention from a slew of spending that, taken together, constitutes something that dare not speak its name -- Stimulus III -- because its predecessors mostly pleased only the political class and its employees. After George Bush's $168 billion Stimulus I in 2008, the Obama administration predicted that its $787 billion Stimulus II (actual cost: $862 billion) would prevent unemployment from exceeding 8 percent. Unemployment is now 9.9 percent. Hence Stimulus III. Like Stimulus II, its scores of billions of spending will enlarge the deficit in order to disproportionately benefit spendthrift state and local governments and their unionized employees.
Last year, Obama ordered 15 department heads to find economies totaling $100 million, which was then 13 minutes (0.0029 percent) of federal spending. His new rescission proposal also is frugality theater, and is similarly frivolous.
George Will's e-mail address is georgewill(at)washpost.com.
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