Going Light on the Line-Item Veto
By Eric Pianin
When President Clinton and his senior budget advisers recently combed through the $69 billion veterans, housing and independent agencies spending bill for likely targets for a line-item veto, these are a few of the projects they came across:
$700,000 to help underwrite the cost of a multimillion-dollar "aquatic and fitness center" at the Cedar Crest College in Allentown, Pa. The center will boast two "world-class" indoor swimming pools, a "splash-down" recreation area and special therapy rooms.
$900,000 to help Chicago's Museum of Science and Industry restore a World War II-vintage German U505 submarine that is one of the museum's main attractions.
$1.5 million for the Southeastern Pennsylvania Consortium for Higher Education to collect data "applicable to social public policy."
In all, Congress added $138 million to the bill for 120 of these "Economic Development Initiatives." Citizens Against Government Waste and other government-spending watchdogs have denounced these types of community development block grant projects as the most egregious forms of "pork-barrel" spending.
"You can pick any one of them," said Thomas A. Schatz, president of Citizens Against Government Waste. "They're all pretty outrageous."
Yet when Clinton announced his latest line-item vetoes of the VA-HUD and the transportation spending bills Nov. 1, only two of the Economic Development Initiatives turned up on his hit list a Montana Chamber of Commerce trade program and an Arab, Ala., police training facility for a savings of little more than $1 million. All the other projects, including the Allentown swimming pools and health spa, survived the cut.
At first, Congress howled over Clinton's use of his new line-item veto power. Both parties fumed that he had gone too far on Oct. 6 by striking 38 projects worth $287 million from a military construction spending bill and later complained of other cuts. Some groups went to court to challenge the constitutionality of the line-item veto. On Saturday, the House joined the Senate in voting overwhelmingly to override the president's veto of the 38 military construction projects.
The last few times Clinton has wielded his veto pen, the silence has been deafening and small wonder. Chastened by his earlier clashes with Congress and wary of offending potential allies with important "fast track" trade legislation hanging in the balance, the White House is using the line-item veto sparingly. The administration also has repeatedly deferred to members of Congress in disputes over whether to retain or eliminate a specific project.
"The administration is passing up opportunities to save the taxpayers millions, if not billions, of dollars," complained Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), the Senate's preeminent critic of pork-barrel spending.
In his most recent use of the line-item veto, for instance, the president trimmed only $20 million from the $42 billion transportation spending bill and $14 million from the VA-HUD bill (including the $1 million for Economic Development Initiatives). Since early this summer, when he first exercised his new power, the president has cut $1.3 billion from six fiscal 1998 spending bills totaling $400 billion. This represents savings of only a fraction of a percentage point.
"We certainly know that we could be canceling more projects," an administration official said. "But we want to both save the taxpayers money as well as defer to Congress's appropriate role in the appropriations process. In doing so, we are providing Congress with the benefit of the doubt on any item for which we have any doubt at all."
"It's a total retreat by the White House since the `Mil-Con' vetoes," said a House Democratic aide who closely monitors spending issues. "They don't have any stomach to fight." The aide noted that the VA-HUD bill contains "pages and pages of projects that are blatant pork but the White House just shied away from it."
Indeed, the VA-HUD bill was packed with scores of low-priority, earmarked community development appropriations, from $1.2 million for a "business innovation" laboratory in Hoboken, N.J., to $1.35 million to renovate the Paramount Theater in Rutland, Vt., to $2.5 million for a New Mexico Hispanic cultural center, to $950,000 for a fish hatchery in Ruskin, Fla.
The $700,000 for the Rodale aquatic and fitness center at Cedar Crest College named for a prominent publishing-house benefactor was inserted at the behest of Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.). Specter said the center's operation would spark economic development and help to cut crime in the Lehigh Valley area by opening its facilities to underprivileged inner-city youth and getting them off the streets. Sponsors of the center have touted the project as a state-of-the-art fitness and instructional facility and a major draw for regional and national swim meets.
Ironically, many of the projects in the VA-HUD bill are similar to those in the Clinton administration's ill-fated 1993 economic stimulus package. GOP leaders back then blasted the White House and Democrats for offering a plan that they said would waste precious federal funds on inner-city swimming pools, theaters and suburban bike paths.
Now, Republicans are bulking up spending bills with the same kinds of projects. Even some of the most ardent GOP revolutionaries who have repeatedly called for less government spending have praised Clinton's prudence in scouring the bills for line-item veto targets.
"I think he's picked projects that fit the definition in his mind of pork-barrel spending, and if he will continue to do that, it doesn't have to be a large money amount to change the [spending] culture," said Rep. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), a leader of a group of radical House conservatives.
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