Thursday, January 18, 2007

Political Football Season Kicks Off

Bipartisanship be damned, the Republicans reach into their bag of hackneyed old tricks and have a new blocking tool:
Senate Democrats and Republicans promised bipartisanship when the new Congress convened on January 4. But that spirit turned into partisan finger-pointing over who knew best how to proceed with the bill to increase accountability and public disclosure in the legislative process.

Republicans demanded that before the Senate vote on the reform measure, it consider a proposed amendment to permit a "line item veto," which would allow a president to single out specific spending or tax provisions in bills approved by Congress and ask that lawmakers go back and delete them.
OK, quick history lesson, because I have a loyal-yet-rabid pack of neo-cons who lurk this blog and they ought to know that history didn't start ten minutes ago.

The line item veto makes sense, to a degree. To quickly go over the legislative process, Congress proposes a bill, and members have free rein to amend that bill so long as they can obtain a majority vote on the amendment's inclusion. Sometimes, this can be used for some fairly important matters that may not warrant a full committee investigation, but usually this hitch in the process is used to swap votes: I include a dam for your district so that you'll vote for my original bill on campaign reform.

The Congress then passes the bill, but look at what happened: while the President may like the bill on the whole, he (or soon, she) is forced to sign all the amendments attached.

(There's an ancillary sidelight here involving the electioneering process: no one believes John McCain supports breast cancer, for example, but a breast cancer funding amendment was attached to a bill that he did not want to vote for, so he voted "no". During the 2000 campaign, Karl Rove made it appear that McCain had voted for breast cancer.)

The line-item veto would allow the President to veto those amendments he felt were inappropriate.So, let's bring this up-to-date:
The President of the United States was briefly granted this power by the Line Item Veto Act of 1996, passed by Congress in order to control "pork barrel spending" that favors a particular region rather than the nation as a whole. The line-item veto was used 11 times to strike 82 items from the federal budget[2] [3] by President Bill Clinton.

However, U.S. District Court Judge Thomas F. Hogan decided on February 12, 1998, that unilateral amendment or repeal of only parts of statutes violated the U.S. Constitution. This ruling was subsequently affirmed on June 25, 1998, by a 6-3 decision of the Supreme Court of the United States in the case Clinton v. City of New York.
In other words, true to Constitutional form, this has been considered unConstitutional. Which is the hand we were dealt, and we ought to just let it lie, barring a Constitutional amendment, which has been considered.

Every President since Reagan hasasked for this power. Only in 1996, surprisingly by a Republican Congress for a Democratic President, was it passed. And dismantled.

Congress knows this: sadly, unlike most of their orcs, they studied history, so this latest gambit smacks of cynicism. While it's not inappropriate, given the attempt to reform Capitol Hill ethics, particularly involving lobbying reform, to include a discussion of any mechanism that would forestall using the Federal government as a piggybank for highly specific beneficiaries (you ought to see how some of these "earmark" amendments are written: "Whereas to develop a new telephony technology, we hereby set aside $10 billion dollars directed towards any company created in Cupertino, CA at midnight on Dec. 31, 1976," which clearly only identifies one particular company, which I made up for this purpose), it's also very unlikely to be the first thing that any Congress could possibly look into, thus delaying or even preventing Pelosi and Reid.

It would take way too much work to describe an amendment or item in the bill that could overcome the rather firm decision rendered in Clinton v. City of New York, in which Justice Stevens pointed out that the very specific instructions written in Article One of the Constitution on the enacment of legislation, the Presentment, rule out any unilateral action on the part of the President to defeat legislation that he does not like.

Clearly, then, this is an obstructionist attempt by Republicans to maintain the status quo of taking money hand over fist from lobbyists and to recapture power at the expense of the sanctity of the Constitutional process, without actually having to record a vote against it (aside from this one vote). The defense against the all-but-certain charge of voting against reform, weak though it is ("We wanted it to be even tougher."), might sway enough voters to win some elections down the road.