“One brick in the dike holding back a future flood of big government.” That’s how Wisconsin Republican Congressman Paul Ryan describes his line-item veto legislation, scheduled for a vote on the House floor on Thursday. He says this and more about this legislation, porkbusting, and the state of conservatism on the Hill in an interview with NRO Editor Kathryn Lopez.
Kathryn Jean Lopez: Why is the line-item veto so important?
Congressman Paul Ryan: The line-item veto is one part of a larger drive to improve fiscal discipline, and it will help bring greater transparency, accountability, and common-sense restraint to the federal budget process. The system that Congress uses today to spend taxpayer dollars is the legacy of the 1974 Congressional Budget Act, and it’s institutionally biased toward spending rather than saving. One case in point: If a member of Congress passes an amendment that removes wasteful spending from an appropriations bill, that savings is not locked in — it is automatically funneled to other government spending. The Budget Committee has made good progress when it comes to passing fiscally responsible budgets and restraining spending, but we must fix the underlying system itself if we are to eliminate wasteful spending and change the culture in Washington from one that spends easily and expands government to one that uses taxpayer dollars judiciously and empowers individuals rather than government.
In short, our constitutional version of the line-item veto is one brick in the dike holding back a future flood of big government. With the retirement of the baby-boom generation, entitlement spending is expected to skyrocket. Now is the time to reform our budget process to give Congress and the president all the tools we need to root out unnecessary spending. Admittedly, this is just one step toward restraining spending over the long term, but it’s a critical one.
Lopez: It does seem to just make good fiscal and procedural sense. Don’t have to hold whole budgets up because of one or two bad or contentious items, etc. So why doesn’t the president have it already? Surely it’s not only the fault of the Supreme Court (which shot down a different line-item-veto attempt in 1998).
Congressman Ryan: I’m glad you brought up the Supreme Court, because I agree with its 1998 ruling striking down the earlier version of the line-item veto. That version didn’t preserve Congress’s constitutional role in the legislative process. In contrast, our line-item legislation (H.R. 4890) preserves Congress’ power of the purse by requiring an up-or-down vote in both the House and Senate under an expedited process before a president’s rescission request becomes law. This is fundamentally different than the earlier line-item veto, and it ensures Congress has the final say on any proposed spending cancellations. In fact, Charles Cooper, an attorney who argued against the earlier line-item veto before the Supreme Court has testified in Congress three times that H.R. 4890 is constitutional.
Simply put, our proposal would allow the president to single out wasteful spending items or narrow, special-interest tax breaks (tax pork) in legislation he signs, put a temporary hold on that spending and send a message to Congress asking for the item or items to be rescinded. Both houses of Congress would have to consider this request on an expedited timeframe and hold an up-or-down vote, without amendments, within 14 legislative days.
As for your question about why Congress doesn’t have this tool yet, we tried to pass something similar in June 2004, when I brought up an expedited rescissions amendment to a larger budget reform bill. It received 174 votes — a strong showing, but not enough. We also tried advancing this reform as part of our comprehensive budget reform bill: the Family Budget Protection Act, but that lacked sufficient votes to pass as well. That was then, but I believe the political landscape and people’s understanding of this issue has changed and the momentum is in our favor.
Lopez: Why now? Is a vote now, in a midterm year, a political ploy? Or just a great opportunity to show some seriousness about fiscal responsibility?
Congressman Ryan: Over the past year, the public has gained a greater awareness of earmarks and flagrant examples of earmark abuse, such as the way former Rep. Duke Cunningham manipulated the system. Our constituents are upset about overspending and they are making their views known. This gives us momentum to make the necessary reforms to combat waste, abuse, and unnecessary spending.
We have also had the support of leadership in bringing key reforms to the House floor for votes this spring. The House has already voted to approve earmark reform and better budgeting for emergencies, and we’re expecting a vote on a sunset commission bill as well.
As I mentioned, we’ve been pushing these reforms for years. The current landscape helps by giving needed momentum to this effort.
Lopez: Would you be comfortable with a Democratic president having this authority as well as a Republican?
Congressman Ryan: Absolutely. Under our plan, the ultimate power still lies with Congress to approve or reject a rescission request.
Lopez: Why the six-year sunset?
Congressman Ryan: In crafting the final version of this legislation, we took into account the criticisms and concerns of both Democrats and Republicans, including the Ranking Member of the Budget Committee, Rep. Spratt, who has a long history of working on this issue. One of his concerns was that the bill lacked a sunset provision, so I worked with another representative from the Democratic side, Rep. Cuellar, to include a sunset provision and address this concern. A six-year sunset will give Congress the ability to review this legislation and decide whether to renew it, after two presidential administrations have had many opportunities to use it as a tool to control spending and improve accountability and transparency.
Lopez: What other reforms to you most want to see Congress follow up an affirmative vote on the line-item veto with?
Congressman Ryan: The next reform that’s expected to be considered in the House is a sunset commission to look at the effectiveness of federal programs and make recommendations about sunsetting or continuing them.
We should make other reforms as well, such as cleaning up the government’s accounting practices so that they offer a more accurate picture of federal finances. We included a provision in our Family Budget Protection Act that addressed the need for this sort of reform, and Reps. Chocola, Kirk and Cooper in April introduced a stand-alone bill, the Truth in Accounting Act (H.R. 5129) that would require the Treasury to begin reporting a measure to track the costs of the federal government’s long-term liabilities and commitments, based on accrual accounting principles.
Lopez: Do you like the label “porkbuster”? Is that going to be the new face of Congress or is that just a delusional thought?
Congressman Ryan: I believe it is within reach. No question, we have more progress to make, but if we can get these reforms into law and stick to our budget, we’ll be on our way there. The scrutiny that earmark reform and the legislative line-item veto will bring to project requests will serve as a strong deterrent to members who might otherwise be tempted to propose funding for an indoor rainforest or other such unnecessary expenditures.
Lopez: Many conservatives, as you know, are in a demoralized mood of late. Why shouldn’t we give up on the majority party?
Congressman Ryan: First of all, conservatives should know that their voices are being heard and making an impact. In Congress, we are closer than we have ever been to enacting key budget and spending reforms. The fact that spending issues and admittedly dry, wonky process issues are getting attention on Capitol Hill and in the media shows how we’ve been successful in shifting the terrain over the past several years. During this time, our majority has also lowered taxes, shepherding through pro-growth economic policies that have made possible this sustained period of economic growth and job creation. If we can pair this progress with fiscal restraint and reform of the budget and spending process, conservatives — and the country as a whole — will have reason to celebrate.