Fighting Pork: What Can Be Done?
I have been railing about the state of overspending and fiscal indiscipline from Congress and the White House for months. I am ashamed to say that aside from urging the president to get serious and follow through on his threats to veto spending bills that represent budgetary irresponsibility, I have not offered enough in the way of concrete solutions. That is not because there aren't any reasonable solutions, so I want to outline some of those here. Obviously the best solution would be for American voters to hold drunken-sailor-spending legislators and presidents accountable at the voting booth, but so far we haven't seen any evidence that's going to happen anytime soon. So what can be done?
1. Increasing Threshold for Legislative Riders and Earmarks. Several times in the last few years, most notably in mid-2003, Senator McCain and others (then Kyl, Sessions and Feingold) have introduced amendments to the Senate's rules which would have done much to tighten spending discipline in that chamber (similar efforts have been made in the House). Their proposal called for a change to Senate Rule 16, which governs amendments to appropriations bills. Currently, a senator may make a point of order against any legislative rider or unauthorized appropriation contained in a spending bill or a conference report - but it only takes a simple majority of senators to kill that procedural move and allow the rider or earmark to proceed unchecked (so often I suspect such points are not even bothered with since their fruitlessness is recognized: no senator, not even McCain, is willing to be "that guy" all the time by holding up every bill on multiple points of order). McCain's plan (which he outlines in a speech here in much greater depth), would raise that threshold to 60 votes, a three-fifths majority. Unanimous consent might be a more effective approach but I'd take 60 over the status quo.
2. Ending Conference Committee Shenanigans. Another portion of several versions of McCain's plan would have amended Senate Rule 28, which covers the Senate's handling of conference committee reports. At present, the Rule states that no provision may be inserted into a conference report which was not passed by either the Senate or the House during the original appropriations process. As before, however, only 51 votes are needed to overturn a point of order against extraneous insertions (and again, usually the points of order aren't even made). Conferees regularly insert huge numbers of provisions into their reports, many of which have absolutely nothing to do with the underlying legislation (see the partial list in McCain's recent floor statement on the highway bill). I'm sorry to be linking almost solely to McCain items here, but since he's one of the very few in Congress actually concerned with such things I don't really have any other options. As with Rule 16, McCain has proposed raising the threshold for this point of order to 60 votes, which would certainly do something to improve things.
3. Allow Time for Scrutiny of Conference Reports. Currently a provision of Rule 28 allows the Senate leadership to bring a conference report up for debate as soon as the report is made available at the desk of all senators. That means that if the conference committee finishes debate and copies are made and distributed, a report can be debated and voted on literally within hours. Senators and representatives (i.e. their staffs) can (and often do) have very little time to read and absorb the provisions of the conference reports (many of which, as stated above, have been slipped in by the conferees unbeknownst to all those outside the conference) before they are asked to vote. Many of these reports amount to thousands of pages, and while it is too much to expect that our representatives would actually examine what they're voting on, I think we deserve at the very least the security in knowing that they were given the option. I would propose an amendment to Rule 28 mandating a two or three day 'waiting period' between the completion of any conference report and when senators and reps are asked to vote on it. Violating that waiting period should require a two-thirds majority vote. The House already has a three-day rule, but it does not apply during the last six days of a Congressional session and it is regularly waived at all other times. It too should be strengthened.
In all cases of Senate rule changes, it would be necessary to require a roll call vote on the points of order, so that all senators would have to go on the record as voting to allow extra material in the spending bills rather than just sliding it through.
Changes to the Senate rules can be filibustered (and usually are), which means reform proponents would have to garner 67 votes for these amendments. Pragmatically speaking, the likelihood of that happening is probably pretty close to nil right now ... but that's where we come in. We should urge our representatives and senators to propose these rules changes during the 109th Congress and move the debate forward. I read somewhere a few weeks ago that Senators McCain and Durbin were planning to propose a waiting period but have been unable to find anything concrete. All senators should be encouraged not only to propose but also to support these rules changes, and similar efforts to beef up the rules should be undertaken in the House.
4. Impose term limits for appropriators. Not surprisingly, large percentages of the pork spending in appropriations bills goes to those writing the bills - the members who sit on the House and Senate committees of jurisdiction. Members of those committees should be rotated through every six years or so (as the watchdog group Citizens Against Government Waste has suggested) so that they don't become entrenched and addicted to the spending power that the appropriations committees offer.
5. Enact a constitutional line-item veto power. With all the legal and political acumen around this country, there has got to be a way to come up with a line-item veto law that would pass Supreme Court muster. A line-item veto would allow a president (though probably not this one, since he's shown little inclination to rein in spending in any way) to strike out extraneous material from spending bills without vetoing entire bills and possibly wreaking havoc on many good and necessary programs. [Update: We've been having a great discussion about this specific step down in the comments, make sure to check that out. Basically the concern, which I have been persuaded by, is that while theoretically a line-item veto power would be an effective way for a president to cut pork out of spending bills, today's presidents - acting as they are in a generally partisan way - would not be even-handed enough with their slicing. A serious concern, to be sure, and one that probably undercuts the practical usefulness of a line-item veto, even if one could be construced and approved by a future Supreme Court.]
These are just a few possibilities for fighting the battle against pork-barrel spending. None of them, not one, will be easy to implement; acceptance of any of these would require a serious shift in perception by our current political leaders, which will only be brought about through a wide-ranging effort by us to make them understand that we don't want our government to operate this way.
Ending wasteful government spending doesn't begin or end with either Congress, the executive, or the public alone. It will require the commitment of all, which makes any immediate change quite unlikely. It's not going to happen in a day, or even in a year, but sooner or later, these steps or some others like them will have to be taken in order to right our fiscal ship of state.
I'd invite you to offer your own suggestions for decreasing excessive spending in the comments, and I'll provide updates if we see any movement on any of these.