Hey, Big Spender

Thirty-five years ago, Richard Nixon justified his big-government economic policies by stating: “We are all Keynesians now.” Given the way government spending has exploded in the last six years, a similarly candid member of the current Congress or administration would be forced to observe: “We are all big spenders now.” While many on the left would applaud such a day, fiscal conservatives are desperately looking for some reason to think this is not true of their elected officials. Fortunately, the House is about to vote on a bill that would make it easier to trim some of the budgetary fat Tom Delay so erroneously claimed had been squeezed from the federal budget.

The president’s proposed budget for 2007 approaches $2.8 trillion – a full $1 trillion more than President Clinton’s last budget in 2000. Federal government expenditures have increased 56% since 2000 under Republican control of both the White House and Congress. Spending now tops $22,000 a household. It hadn’t been over $20,000 a household, in inflation adjusted dollars, since World War II.

The wasteful spending is epitomized by the explosion of pork barrel spending projects – more politely referred to as “earmarks” – that proliferate in large budget legislation. These projects, like the now famous $223 million “Bridge to Nowhere” in Alaska, have increased by 900% since 1991. In 1996, 958 earmarked projects cost taxpayers $12.5 billion. The 2005 Congress passed 13,999 earmarks that cost $27.3 billion, or almost $100 for every American man, woman and child.

Rep. Jim Moran, a Democrat of Virginia, recently showed just how brazen members of Congress have become with pork barrel spending when he proudly told an audience in his Northern Virginia district that if the Democrats took back Congress, as the new chairman of a House appropriations subcommittee he would, “earmark the [stuff] out of it.”

Members of Congress have indeed become deft at “earmarking the [stuff]” out of bills and inventing new ways to soak taxpayers to pay for their pet vanity projects. In many cases, earmarks are not even contained in the initial legislation that passes the House or Senate. Instead, conference negotiators slip them in the backdoor, attaching them to large appropriations bills that can no longer be amended. Congress is then forced into an up-or-down vote on the entire legislation. At that point it’s much more difficult for Congress to vote against legislation – some because they’re getting a gold plated swimming pool for their district in the bill and others because they support the main piece of the legislation to which the earmark has been attached.

The president is in the same situation. He can veto an entire bill because of a few egregious earmarks, but that involves throwing out the baby with the bathwater. He also has some authority to challenge individual spending items, but in practice Congress can simply ignore this action, as it always does.

The “Legislative Line-Item Veto Act of 2006,” as introduced by Rep. Paul Ryan, a Republican of Wis., and which has already passed the House Budget Committee, would allow the President to veto individual budget items, or special-interest tax breaks that affected fewer than 100 beneficiaries, while signing the rest of a bill into law.

The measure is more limited than similar legislation the Supreme Court overturned in 1998 after determining that it did not pass constitutional muster. To ensure Congress keeps the “power of the purse,” the president’s veto could be over-ridden by a simple majority in both houses of Congress.

This legislation would give the president an important tool for pushing fiscal responsibility, similar to that which President Clinton effectively used, and which is used by 43 governors across the country.

Unfortunately, the line-item veto alone won’t bring fiscal discipline to Congress, where over half of all federal spending goes to entitlement programs like Medicare, Social Security, and Medicaid, which will continue to grow. But it is a first step that is desperately needed, and would be a much welcomed move toward controlling the congressional spending spree.

Mr. Kibbe is president and chief executive officer of FreedomWorks (www.freedomworks.org), a grassroots organization advocating lower taxes, less government, and more freedom.