Robert Novak

WASHINGTON -- Before they left town for the St. Patrick's Day recess, 10 U.S. senators gathered around President Bush at the White House to hear him make the case for a line-item veto. But Sen. Jim DeMint, a freshman Republican from South Carolina, had a better idea for the president: Why not instruct your department heads to ignore the earmarks Congress adds to your budget?

DeMint was not encouraging Bush to take the law into his own hands and defy statutes passed by Congress. A March 6 report by the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service (CRS) said more than 95 percent of all earmarks were not written into law but were merely contained in the reports of congressional committees and legislative managers. "Earmarks that appear in committee reports and the statements of managers do not legally bind agencies," said the report.

The president did not respond to DeMint at the meeting, and that signifies opposition to the idea. Administration officials have flinched from any such confrontation with Congress. But this exercise of executive power by a president who has yet to use his veto would go a long way toward controlling runaway federal spending. In contrast to a dubious quest for a line-item veto, Bush with a brief order could change the climate of spending on Capitol Hill.

Bush has explained that he has not vetoed any spending bills because they generally follow his overall limits even though individual earmarks are unacceptably high. Accordingly, the president has dusted off the line-item veto, which would enable him to kill individual categories of spending though the Supreme Court in 1998 declared a line-item veto unconstitutional because it cut Congress out of the legislative process. Even if the new version clears its formidable legislative hurdles and actually passes, it would require positive congressional assent to each veto, which might make the whole process unworkable.

A practical alternative was suggested by DeMint on Feb. 16 when Vice Adm. Conrad C. Lautenbacher, administrator of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), testified before the Senate Commerce Committee. DeMint asserted that NOAA and other federal agencies are under no obligation to fund earmarks stuck in congressional reports in the dark of night on Capitol Hill. "I agree that it's not legally required," Lautenbacher replied, "but it is in fact a practice that has been in place for many, many years."

Robert Novak

Robert Novak (1931-2009) was a syndicated columnist and editor of the Evans-Novak Political Report.

©Creators Syndicate