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A Plan for Presidential Pork

March 7, 2006

Americans seem to have an overwhelming desire to believe that government is the answer, regardless of the question. But given that this belief is untenable to anyone paying even cursory attention to reality, they evade rather than face that reality by constantly looking for the "if only" that might square the circle-if only we could find the candidate who would not be corrupted by the inherent incentives toward abuse in government or some gimmick that would magically generate good government despite those incentives.

The line-item veto is the latest recycled good government gimmick. Unfortunately, it does nothing to fix the underlying problem of government plunder, to use Bastiat's term. In fact, it may well even make things worse. But that doesn't keep it from being proposed periodically as a political panacea.

George Bush is now the latest of long line of Presidents to ask for the "if only" of a line-item veto. Despite overseeing a massive explosion in federal spending and intrusiveness, a congressional election year has President Bush trying to portray himself as fiscally responsible, so he has proposed a new line-item veto law "to bring this important tool of fiscal discipline to Washington, D.C." It is being promoted as a way to excise special interest pork and waste from federal budgets, while being reworked enough that it is expected to survive the Supreme Court scrutiny that overturned it during the Clinton administration.

Unfortunately, however, there is ample reason to question the effectiveness of a line-item veto in the hands of a president who has not vetoed a single bill since taking office. Further, while presidents could use line-item vetoes to rein in federal expansion by cutting out budgetary pork, they could also use them to further expand government. And that alternative may be more likely, turning the supposed panacea into an added dose of poison for Americans.

The line-item veto could reduce the growth rate of government, in the hands of a president determined to use it for that purpose, by eliminating the ability of those in Congress to deliver on their logrolling agreements. The president could void the legislative payoff to any party to pork trading "contracts," reducing incentives for those in Congress to create them. It would erode the power of the current contract enforcers--committee and subcommittee chairmen (unless the president acted as their enforcer)--to make the necessary mutual commitments credible.

While a line-item veto could reduce congressional pork, it would increase presidential pork. The President would become the only ultimate enforcer of congressional negotiations, and so would have to be included in every logrolling agreement, giving him vastly increased leverage over legislation. That leverage could just as easily be used to grow government as shrink it. Using a line-item veto to grow government simply requires the President to threaten carefully targeted vetoes, unless Congress passed his desired legislation. He could make every item in any bill that benefited any recalcitrant legislator disappear, unless he was given what he wanted. And that would expand the government whenever what he wanted was "more."

Despite claims that a President represents the people rather than special interests, every President has plenty of special interests. He wants to help swing constituencies at the expense of others whose votes won't change. He wants to use his leverage to help states with "at risk" candidates from his party and punish those with similarly situated opponents. And the President has personal and regional spending priorities, as well.

Is a line-item veto more likely to shrink or grow government in George Bush's hands? His expansions have been ubiquitous, but one is hard-pressed to see any contractions. And the line-item veto's potential to increase budgets has hardly gone unrecognized. For instance, in 1996, Al Gore said that the Clinton administration was planning to use the added leverage it provided to restore benefits it didn't want cut by the historic welfare reform bill being forced on it after two vetoes.

Supporting a line-item veto seems like a good way to prove one's commitment to cut federal pork, at least to Americans paying limited attention. But it does nothing to eliminate the underlying causes of unjustified federal involvement at others' expense (as would taking the Constitution seriously, for example), nor its essential consequences. And even where it could work to nibble at the edges of Leviathan, it would only do so with a President determined to make America more fiscally prudent. It would also give more power to a President determined to grow the government further.

What would happen more frequently under George Bush? What about future Presidents? Just asking those questions reveals that Its potential for serious abuse rules out a line-item veto as a "solution" to the profligacy of a federal government whose routine operation involves irresponsibility and harm.

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