Obama proposal is frugality theater

May 31, 2010


— 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 is a columnist for Washington Post Writers Group. georgewill@washpost.com


Brent Garner 7 years, 11 months ago

The Supreme Court has already weighed in on this and ruled the line-item veto to be unconstitutional. IF the Great Usurper truly wanted this capability it would require a constitutional amendment not a mere law. Therefore, the Great Usurper is either woefully ignorant of legal precedent, willfully ignoring legally precedent, or engaging in deception.

Corey Williams 7 years, 11 months ago

"Loving to how Dems in regard to the Sestak scandal..."

Majestic42 7 years, 11 months ago

We'll end up with all sorts of fun illegal laws, and no legal ones. Oh joy. cue annoyed and childish look from Obama "That's...uh...not true."

imastinker 7 years, 11 months ago

There's some scary statistics in there. 56% of all federal spending is entitlement, and 6% interest. Remember that only half of americans pay taxes. The rich have all kinds of tax avoidance strategies, and the poor don't pay taxes, so let's soak the middle class some more!

Richard Heckler 7 years, 11 months ago

Tax cuts and corporate welfare = very expensive entitlements at the local level as well. Entitlements come as new roads,water lines,public schools,traffic signals,sewage treatment plants,fire departments etc etc etc with the help of local big government tax dollars.

Is there a definite pattern? Absolutely!

  1. The Reagan/ Bush Savings and Loan Heist - A REPUBLICAN ENTITLEMENT http://rationalrevolution0.tripod.com/war/bush_family_and_the_s.htm

  2. The Bush/Cheney Wall Street Bank Fraud on Consumers - ANOTHER REPUBLICAN ENTITLEMENT http://www.dollarsandsense.org/archives/2009/0709macewan.html

  3. What did Bush and Henry Paulson do with the $700 billion of bail out money? http://www.democracynow.org/2009/9/10/good_billions_after_bad_one_year ANOTHER ENTITLEMENT

  4. Why did GW Bush Lie About Social Security?( This would cost taxpayers $4 trillion,place taxpayers insurance money at risk and wreck the economy) http://www.dollarsandsense.org/archives/2005/0505orr.html

  5. Still A Bad Idea – Bush Tax Cuts - The ENTITLEMENT program for the wealthy at the expense of the middle class http://www.dollarsandsense.org/archives/2001/0301miller.html

  6. The "tea parties" BTW are part of the wreckanomics program funded by the Koch Brothers... well known oil billionaires. These thinkers back a tax payers bill of rights which is another scheme to reward the upper 1% which is designed to wreck local and state governments.

The Other ENTITLEMENT Program for the Wealthy http://www.dollarsandsense.org/archives/2005/0705rebne.html

Majestic42 7 years, 11 months ago

Blaming Bush is no longer popular or cool. Knock it off, you sound like a whiny child.

Richard Heckler 7 years, 11 months ago

While George Will is whining the problem the country faces was brought on by criminal and fraudulent activity.

This activity sunk the USA economy and lost 11 million jobs.

The economy will NOT rebound until the USA can put about 15 million back to work. So how are the jobs going to materialize?

Millions of jobs lost are going over seas to support the Reagan/Bush Global Economy but not the American economy. Millions of jobs are NOT coming back.

Some of us do not realize how much the Global Economy is costing America because Lawrence,Kansas has KU tied to its' local economy.... kind of a glass house situation.

The USA government lost these jobs due to extreme negligence. Which makes it the governments responsibility to create NEW INDUSTRY thus NEW JOBS. Corporate America is not on the side of the USA workforce..... they prefer China,Pakistan and India at the moment.

Some scream out TAX CUTS TAX CUTS TAX CUTS !!! Well if tax cuts created jobs there would be a huge surplus in the USA.

Majestic42 7 years, 11 months ago

You need a common sense lesson. It's obvious that most of the American people hate a lot of legislation their so-called "representatives" have passed, and we shall see just how much they hate it come November, when a large number of "representatives" will lose their jobs.

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