WASHINGTON -- One of the issues Democrats have been most vocal about is the sharp increases in the budget deficit. But when they had a chance to strike a blow against wasteful pork projects in the House last month, 156 of them voted for business as usual.
The line-item veto passed the House anyway on a fairly robust vote of 247-172, with the support of 212 Republicans and 35 brave Democrats who broke with their party's opposition.
Now the measure goes to the Senate, where President Bush is pulling out all the stops to pass a bill that will give him the authority to reject the many pork-barrel provisions secretly inserted into spending bills that have wasted -- looted might be a better word -- tens of billions of tax dollars.
These are the notorious spending projects, such as the Alaskan bridge to nowhere, that have lined the pockets of the special interests, particularly the lobbyists who are paid vast sums of money to sneak these measures into appropriation measures that no one in the government requested and no committee ever approved by a recorded vote.
It is without a doubt the worst scandal afflicting Congress, and it's getting worse each year. The number of so-called "earmarks" slipped into these spending bills has skyrocketed from 3,055 in 1996 to 14,211 in 2004, the last year for which official numbers are available from the Congressional Research Service. The cost of all this has more than doubled to $53 billion and will climb ever higher if something isn't done to stop Congress from shamelessly squandering the money we hand over to them in ever larger sums each year.
How much more are they spending? Well, since 2001 the budget has shot up by about 50 percent -- from $1.87 trillion to an estimated $2.77 trillion in the next fiscal year. Much of that are entitlements run amok, but the pork is a big part of it, too.
The House's line-item veto would work like this: The president would be able to essentially draw a line through each spending item he deems unnecessary and wasteful, and then send a full rescission list to Congress, which would have 90 days to approve or reject his recommendations by a simple majority vote.
Congress approved a line-item veto in 1996, a budget tool that President Clinton requested, as have presidents going back to Harry Truman. But the Supreme Court ruled it unconstitutional, saying that only Congress can craft appropriations bills and that the line-item veto, which required a two-thirds vote to override, cut into Congress' power of the purse, giving the president too much authority to shape funding measures.
This new version, however, will presumably meet the courts' objection because it allows Congress to reject the president's rescissions by the very same simple majority vote when they approved the spending bill in the first place. The outlook for the line-item veto in the Senate looks promising right now. Administration officials, adding up the senators who supported it 10 years ago and newer senators who are sponsoring the latest bill, say at least 60 senators are onboard to approve it.
While the bulk of the opposition will come from Democratic senators, some are for it, including Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts, who calls the bill a "no-brainer" that is needed "to stop the incomprehensible waste coming out of Washington."
But in addition to the fiscal implications of enacting a line-item veto that can meet the court's approval, there will also be a big political payoff for Bush and the Republican-run Congress.
No other domestic issue has more angered the Republican base than the pork-spending scandal that has been flogged on conservative talk shows. Polls show it has been a major factor behind the decline in Bush's polls and those of his party.
Actually, Bush has had some success this year battling the spenders in Congress. The skids were greased for the emergency supplemental bill for the war in Iraq and hurricane relief that was loaded with pork, but a veto threat forced Appropriations Committee cardinals to back down and drop the bill's most egregious spending provisions.
If Congress sends Bush the line-item veto bill this summer, as I expect it will, signing that measure into law will be a major victory in the long battle to control future spending and apply the brakes to the pork binge that has left a shameful mark on the GOP's fiscal record.
It will be a major political victory not only for Bush but for those all too often unsung Republican lawmakers who have long been battling for this needed reform, including Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, a rising star in the GOP's leadership ranks, who introduced the bill in March.
When Bush signs this bill, it will send a clarion call to the GOP's ranks that their party has heard their spending complaints and is tackling the job head-on. That'll add a few more points to his party's job-approval scores at a time when the GOP needs it most.