WASHINGTON -- President Bush has proposed a tough line-item veto to slash pork-barrel spending that has a good chance of being enacted this year and passing constitutional muster.
Under increasing fire from conservative critics for his failure to veto any spending bill, especially those stuffed with tens of billions of dollars in pork, Bush has heard the message from his party's base. They want to curb the cost and size of government, and the place to start is in the heavily larded appropriations bills that have squandered our tax dollars as never before.
With his job-approval polls showing a dangerous erosion of support in his party's base, Bush is aggressively following through on his State of the Union pledge to seek line-item-veto-type legislation that would give him the authority to carve the fat out of future bills, but avoids the constitutional objections that led the Supreme Court to strike down a previous line-item law in 1998.
At least 11 presidents, from Ulysses Grant to Bill Clinton, have sought the line-item veto, a waste-cutting tool routinely used by 43 of the 50 state governors. But when the high court reviewed the bill that the Republican-run Congress passed in the late 1990s, it didn't like what it saw.
The Constitution says only Congress has the power of the purse, and the line-item bill unconstitutionally "gave the president the unilateral power to change the text of duly enacted statutes," the court ruled.
Bush seeks to avoid that problem with a fast-track legislative procedure that would guarantee an up-or-down vote on any pork-barrel spending the president proposes to rescind. It's a proposal that has won the support of Democratic and Republican leaders in the past, and the White House thinks it will again.
In a formal message to Congress last week, Bush said his line-item plan would give him "the authority to strip special spending and earmarks out of a bill, and then send them back to Congress for an up-or-down vote."
These lawmakers, led by Congressman Paul Ryan, an up-and-coming GOP leader from Wisconsin, have introduced the president's proposal (or versions of it). At last count, his bill had 46 original co-sponsors.
"This legislative line-item veto passes constitutional muster and serves as a powerful tool to target questionable earmarks and to give Congress the chance to judge them on their own merits, rather than as part of a larger spending bill," Ryan said.
At the same time, Bush's initiative has helped showcase the Pork Barrel Reduction Act in the Senate, sponsored by two Republican waste fighters, John McCain of Arizona and Tom Coburn of Oklahoma. Their bill would also impose new restrictions to ban earmarks as part of a broader budget-reform effort.
Pork-barrel expenditures are nearly as old as the republic itself, but in recent years their abuse has been raised to unheard-of spending levels, often larger than the operating budgets of many countries.
According to the Congressional Research Service, lawmakers stuffed 15,877 earmarked, special-interest spending items into 13 appropriations bills in fiscal 2005, costing taxpayers a whopping $47.4 billion.
The recent highway-authorization bill contained 6,371 earmarks that cost taxpayers $25 billion. Bush railed against them but signed the bill anyway.
None of these items was requested by the administration, nor did Congress review them. They were slipped into spending bills, often anonymously, to bankroll shockingly wasteful projects with zero priority. Among the most infamous: the $223 million "bridge to nowhere" in Alaska and the $1.7 million for an International Fertilizer Development Center.
Other recipients included Cleveland's Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, an indoor rain forest in Iowa, a therapeutic equestrian program and a grant to fight teen "goth" culture in Blue Springs, Mo.
The waste and wantonness has ignited a growing political furor in the GOP's ranks. Republicans correctly see such spending excesses as a betrayal of what their party once stood for: a limited government frugally spending the hard-earned tax dollars that America's workers send to the IRS.
There are several reasons why Bush has lost support in his base, but there is no doubt the pork-barrel scandal, and his refusal until now to face it head-on, has been a big factor.
Bush has finally seized the initiative, and he cannot afford to let up on it. He needs to find ways to keep the spotlight on the issue and push it hard. Singling out a big spending bill for a presidential veto would make his party's grassroots troops stand up and cheer.
This is a critical election year for Republicans, and they need a unified and energized base to overcome the Democrats' all-out political assault on the GOP's control of Congress. A fiercely determined Bush leading the charge on behalf of a line-item veto, which wins House and Senate approval in the coming months, will give his ground forces a shot of ideological adrenaline that will boost their turnout in November.