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Few Satisfied with Inaugural Use of the Line-Item Veto

By the Numbers:

  • Most Affected Members
  • Top Dollar Losses
  • How Spending Bills Fared
  • All '98 Line-Item Vetoes
  • By Rick Rothacker
    LEGI-SLATE News Service
    Tuesday, December 2, 1997

    Try to tell Rep. John Murtha that lightning never strikes twice.

    In the inaugural use of the line-item veto this year, the Pennsylvania Democrat felt President Clinton's jolt not only once but three times.

    Not surprisingly, Murtha, a long-time opponent of giving the president the power to eliminate individual items from legislation, calls the vetoes "slip-shod" and the criteria for canceling projects "arbitrary."

    "They [the White House] don't appreciate the importance of these projects to members," says Murtha, a senior member of the Appropriations Committee who had a Navy Reserve training center, a Navy research project and an Allegheny River draining proposal trimmed from spending bills -- a total of $23 million for his district.

    But those who view these types of projects as congressional pork- barreling at its worst wish lawmakers like Murtha would have suffered more under the line-item veto, which was approved last year as a key plank in the Republican Contract with America.

    Including his latest decision Tuesday to cut $5 million from the bill that covers the Commerce, Justice and State departments [H.R. 2267], President Clinton has only sliced $483.6 million in projects from the 13 fiscal year 1998 spending bills, or about one-tenth of a percent. And Congress is poised to reclaim more than half of that by using the override mechanism in the line-item veto law.

    Clinton also vetoed a change to the federal pension program in the treasury appropriations bill [H.R. 2267] that the administration estimated would cost the government $854 million over five years. Earlier this year, he cut two tax provisions and Medicaid change from two other bills.

    "There was certainly a lot more that could have been cut," says Jim Campi, spokesman for Citizens Against Government Waste, a Washington- based activist group that has chastised Clinton for his light use of his new pork-cutting tool. "We're disappointed."

    With the first round of incisions completed -- and any future rounds threatened by court challenges -- few seem to be pleased with the way the power was used this year. Many observers and participants in the process believe politics intruded in the decision-making, and even the Clinton administration admits it could have handled things better.

    Winners and Losers

    Whether his projects merited the spending or not, Murtha had some reason to feel picked on. And deliberately or not, the administration made him one of its favorite targets.

    Rep. Rick Hill, a Republican whose territory covers all of Montana, had the honor of being affected the most times with five line-item vetoes, according to a computer analysis of the vetoes by LEGI-SLATE News Service. But Murtha and four other Republican representatives -- Michael Crapo of Idaho, Jerry Lewis of California, Steven Schiff of New Mexico and Don Young of Alaska -- were in second place with three lost projects apiece.

    "We're confused why he [Clinton] would pick on the state of Montana," said Hill's spokeswoman, Amy Sullivan, who argued that the lost projects would have helped the state's economy.

    Overall, House Democrats fared much better than their Republican counterparts in "line-item veto roulette," the LEGI-SLATE analysis shows. A project was cut in a district belonging to a Republican 2.5 times to every one axed in a Democrat's home turf. Republicans lost $316.2 million, compared to $154.5 million for Democrats.

    The lawmakers may not have been the original patrons of the project, but the lost money affected their House districts, according to the White House's Office of Management and Budget, members' offices and other sources.

    Losses for senators could not as easily be attributed to one party. Line-item vetoes struck 35 times in states with two Republican senators, 26 times in a state with a Republican and a Democrat and 17 times in states with two Democrats. States with senators from both parties lost $165 million from vetoes, double-Republican states $159 million and double-Democrat states $144 million.

    In a state-by-state look, California led with $108.5 million in cuts, followed by New Mexico ($60.9 million), Pennsylvania ($29.5 million) and Virginia ($28 million), the analysis shows.

    Overall, Clinton chopped 78 specific appropriations projects, which were included in this analysis. The tax provisions and pension and Medicaid changes were excluded because they were either not a definitive spending provision or not in an appropriations bill.

    "The Wrong Foot"

    The use of the line-item veto on spending bills started with a bang on Oct. 6, with 38 military construction projects worth $287 million -- ranging from dining hall repairs to pier improvements -- going under the knife. The 3.1 percent chunk from the $9.2 billion measure [H.R. 2016] was the largest bite, in terms of percentage, from any appropriations bill.

    But after a bitter reaction from Capitol Hill -- including an attempt to override the military construction cuts that is expected to be successful next year -- the president's vetoes dropped significantly on the spending bills that came to his desk later. OMB Director Franklin Raines even admitted that some of the military construction decisions were mistakes.

    "The president stepped off on the wrong foot and as a result ended up using it much less than anticipated," says Robert Reischauer, former director of the Congressional Budget Office. "With the military construction bill they tried to be objective and lay out criteria they were going to use, and they hadn't done their homework."

    By vacillating on its treatment of each bill, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., said the administration left itself open to accusations of favoritism.

    "I am deeply concerned that your administration's process for determining the items to veto in these bills has been unduly influenced by political considerations," wrote McCain, who argued strongly for more cuts, in an Oct. 16 letter to the president. OMB spokesman Lawrence Haas, said the White House worked to develop an appropriate criteria for each bill, but admits, "It's fair to say we were learning as we were going along."

    In general, the White House "scoured each bill and considered unrequested projects on their merits," Haas said. "No one planned to concentrate efforts on any one state. This was the cumulative determination after we looked at each of the bills."

    But in choosing projects to eliminate, the White House clearly considered where the ax would fall. For each line-item veto, OMB documents identified how many times the district and state had been affected.

    "I would say we were sensitive that we weren't hitting the same district time after time," Haas said.

    The fact that Republicans were hit harder can be attributed to their greater numbers in the Congress and to their greater power in inserting projects into legislation, said Haas and many congressional observers.

    But Rep. Joe Skeen, R-N.M., insists, "There was some politics. The president has not been known to be insensitive to politics. He plays the game."

    Skeen, who lost a project in his district, may be right, but the lawmakers who were helped the most by political considerations may actually have been Republicans, observed Virginia McMurtry, a specialist with the Congressional Research Service.

    "Some thought that the Republican leadership was spared more than key Democrats ... and rank and file Republicans," McMurtry said.

    Major defense projects in the home districts of Majority Leader Trent Lott, R-Miss., House Speaker Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., and House Appropriations Committee Chairman Robert Livingston, R-La., all emerged unscathed.

    During the line-item veto process there was much talk about whether the legislative battle over giving the president "fast-track" trade negotiating authority -- supported by many Republicans -- was involved in line-item veto decision-making. Murtha said some members told him that their support of fast-track helped keep local projects off the hit list.

    Haas said he knew of no instances of horse-trading on fast-track or other issues, but he said the White House did try to communicate with members before making cuts. The LEGI-SLATE analysis was inconclusive on whether line-item vetoes were related to the members' declared positions on the trade issue.

    Nonetheless, behind-the-scenes negotiations were an inevitable part of the line-item veto process, Reischauer asserted.

    "Nothing in this city can be treated in isolation," he said. "Every action affects other issues in play."

    © Copyright 1997 LEGI-SLATE News Service

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