For the second time in as many months, Republicans in Congress have managed to slow down a major appropriations bill with horror stories about tangential spending. During the stimulus debate, when Republicans on the talk shows started scoring points against provisions to spruce up the Mall and fund contraceptives, the White House forced House leaders to drop anything that wasn’t cable-ready. Now Senate leaders are scrambling to pass last year’s omnibus bill, which contains thousands of bipartisan earmarks that sound awfully silly.
In the end, Democrats will probably find the votes to break a filibuster on the omnibus. Most senators favor the bill, many of the earmarks were added by Republican members, and appropriation knows no party. But the longer these floor fights drag on, the clearer it becomes that Republicans will succeed in one objective: making a disproportionate amount of congressional spending sound silly. Honeybee factories, Mormon cricket control, beaver management—not much dignity remains after both Dana Milbank and Maureen Dowd devote their columns to the pork on John McCain’s Twitter. While some pet projects may be every bit as reasonable as their defenders maintain, arguments are not won on defense.
So far, these attacks don’t seem to have done the GOP much good, apart from lifting conservative spirits and uniting congressional ranks. But Democrats ignore them at our peril—which is why the White House moved so quickly to excise distractions from the stimulus. To turn the economy around, the federal government needs to make some significant investments, and President Obama can’t let public confidence be rattled by insignificant ones.
For all the speculation that hard times have suddenly changed American attitudes toward government, the nation’s views are as conflicted as ever. A new Newsweek poll asked people whether they favor a larger government with more services or a smaller government with fewer services. Americans split right down the middle, with 44 percent in each camp—virtually the same results as in 1988, Ronald Reagan’s last year in office. A nation so closely divided on the role and size of government needs constant reassurance that any major government initiative will be worth the cost.
If Democrats want to shut down the Republican anecdote machine, at least three options come to mind. The ideal route, of course, would be to avoid junk spending in the first place. A ban on earmarks would help, because narrowly tailored line items tend to sound ridiculous even when they’re worthy. But abstinence-only is itself a risky approach. As House Democrats discovered during the stimulus battle, items that might seem sensible in one context can be made to sound ridiculous in another.
A second option is to throw the first punch. Many Democrats have adopted that strategy for the omnibus bill, emphasizing that earmarks and other forms of junk spending are neither a Democratic habit nor a Republican habit but a failing common to both sides. The so’s-your-member defense is cathartic and cable-ready. Yet while it may parry any partisan damage, this approach does nothing to restore confidence in government over the long haul.
The third option is to recognize junk spending as the greatest threat to consequential spending and pass a constitutional amendment to give the president a line-item veto to prevent it. While the line-item veto is often seen as a conservative idea, many Democrats—from Mike Dukakis to Bill Clinton—have endorsed it over the years, and most governors in both parties already have it.
In the past, some congressional leaders have resisted shifting that much power to the executive branch. But both parties and both houses might have something to gain from giving the president a line-item veto. Advocates of fiscal discipline would pick up a powerful new tool. Advocates of increased government investment would benefit from fixing spending blunders with a precision scalpel instead of a blunt instrument.
A constitutional amendment is necessary because, a decade ago, the Supreme Court struck down a statutory line-item veto when President Clinton tried to use it. But if President Obama doesn’t want to wait for states to amend the Constitution, he can achieve virtually the same effect through existing rescission authority, which allows him to rescind certain items and pressure Congress to vote on whether to keep them. If Congress can’t or won’t get rid of the most egregious earmarks in the omnibus bill, Obama could break the impasse by rescinding them.
Ross Douthat and Mickey Kaus may be right that some Democrats want to “stuff the beast” now to protect against cuts later, but Barack Obama isn’t one of them. Obama wants to prove that government can work, and for him, pork and the congressional food fights it inspires are a counterproductive sideshow. Rescinding the beast might make it easier for Americans to see its beauty.