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Line-item veto for Obama? Janesville-based proposal says yes

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FRANK J. SCHULTZ
March 4, 2009
— Janesville's two hometown members of Congress stood with Sen. John McCain in the nation's capital today to propose a new power for President Barack Obama.

Sen. Russ Feingold, a Democrat, and 1st District Rep. Paul Ryan, a Republican, have proposed similar legislation before. They once called it "the Janesville line-item veto" because both are Janesville natives.


Today, they added McCain, R-Ariz., the Republican's most recent presidential candidate, to their group.


Ryan aide Conor Sweeney noted that presidential spokesman Robert Gibbs on Feb. 25 endorsed the idea of a line-item veto power.


Gibbs was asked at a press conference about a line-item veto, and Gibbs responded that Obama "would love to take that for a test drive."


Congress gave President Bill Clinton a line-item veto in the 1990s, but it was later ruled unconstitutional. The issue was that the veto took the power of the purse away from Congress.


The Feingold-McCain-Ryan proposal seeks to sidestep the constitutional principal that Congress has the power to tax and spend, not the president.


The proposal is aimed squarely at the practice of earmarking. That's when a member of Congress inserts a spending item into a bill, often unrelated to the purpose of the main bill. Earmarks typically are attached without any debate or review.


The most famous earmark in recent years was the Alaskan "bridge to nowhere," which focused public attention on the practice.


A president might want to sign the main bill, but the only way to do that is to approve all the attached earmarks.


Under the proposal, the president could single out earmarks in bills and send them back to Congress. Congress would have to vote on whether to rescind the earmarks.


If either chamber voted against the earmark by a simple majority, it would not be enacted. The bill limits the number of recission requests a president could make.


Sweeny said Ryan believes the number of earmarks would fall if the legislation were passed because members of Congress would shy away from the possible embarrassment of having their pet projects subjected to public debate.


Sweeney said the Janesville line-item veto passed the House in 2006 but stalled in the Senate. He said it was difficult to pass a bill that would give power to a very unpopular president, George W. Bush.


But with a new president, along with an ailing economy and concerns about rampaging government spending, the bill has a better chance, Sweeney said hopefully.


"In order to meet the great economic challenges we are facing, we'll need to tighten our belts and work across party lines," Feingold said in a news release. "This legislation does both. Congress should set an example by passing this legislation which takes a serious step toward curbing wasteful spending."


The would-be reformers point to an omnibus spending bill that is expected to be on Obama's desk soon. The bill contains more than 8,500 earmarks, they said.


Sweeney said the line-item veto is unlikely to be passed in time to curb the excesses in the omnibus bill, but it would be in place to stop future wasteful spending.


"With American families making tough budgetary decisions, it is shameful that their elected officials can't do the same," Ryan said in the news release. "The line-item veto will equip the president with an important tool to change business as usual in Washington. Congress must earn back the trust of those they serve to tackle our most pressing economic and fiscal challenges."


Sweeney said doing away with earmarks is a small step toward fiscal responsibility. The massive federal debt is fueled mostly by entitlement programs, such as Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid and unemployment compensation.


"Paul will be the first to tell you the explosion in entitlement spending is the elephant in the room. That's the big budget buster," Sweeney said, but if Congress is to have credibility to take on the challenge of entitlement spending, it must first clean up its own house and eliminate indefensible spending projects.



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