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For Immediate Release
Office of the Press Secretary
March 6, 2006
Press Briefing on the President's Line-Item Veto Legislation by OMB Director Josh Bolten
Via Conference Call
3:39 P.M. EST
DIRECTOR BOLTEN: In his State of the Union address, the President asked Congress to give him line-item veto. Today, the President is transmitting to Congress legislation that would give him a constitutional line-item veto. The legislation is designed to do two things: one, to give the President a scalpel to reduce unnecessary or wasteful spending; and, second, to improve accountability and cast a brighter light on the practice of slipping earmarks into bills at the last minute.
Most of you are aware that the Congress did enact a line-item veto which was available to the President in 1996, but the Supreme Court struck that law down as unconstitutional as drafted. Since 1996, when the law was struck down, earmarks have increased dramatically, and that's part of the reason why the President has decided to send forward specific legislation now to restore a line-item veto authority and, in particular, restore one that passes constitutional muster.
What this legislation does -- by the way, the title is the Legislative Line-Item Veto Act of 2006. It provides the President the authority to single out wasteful discretionary or mandatory spending, or special interest tax breaks given to a small number of individuals and to put them on hold. During the time that the spending line-item is on hold, the President can send legislation to Congress to rescind the line-item. The legislation under the statute would be considered within 10 days of introduction on an up or down basis without amendments and could be passed by a simple majority and could not be filibustered.
This authority would allow the President to hold up to the full light of public scrutiny wasteful spending that might have been passed as part of larger legislation. As you all are undoubtedly aware, spending legislation usually comes to the President in the form of very large bills, many of them with tens of billions of dollars of spending in them. And it is not sufficient for them to have authority merely to veto the entire bill. This would give him the opportunity to line out specific items of wasteful or unnecessary spending.
Similar legislation has drawn broad support in the past. And, in fact, Senator Kerry proposed as part of his campaign in 2004, essentially the kind of line-item veto authority that the President is proposing to the Congress today.
Finally, while it's a very powerful tool to reduce wasteful spending and rein in overall spending, a line-item veto authority alone is only just one of the tools to control spending. We need to continue progress that which -- we need to continue measures in which Congress has made a lot of progress, especially in the last year, to hold discretionary spending down. And, in fact, as in last year's budget, the President proposed in this year's budget to pose an actual cut on non-security discretionary spending, and also to slow the growth in entitlement spending. So there is a much broader spending restraint agenda that ought to be pursued, but this particular element is a very important part.
Scott, that's it.
Q Hey, Josh. Would you go back over the details of legislation and tell us what it is that you think enables this to avoid Supreme Court denial, as was the case in '96?
DIRECTOR BOLTEN: Jim, the '96 case centered around the constitutional concern of the President having authority unilaterally to cancel spending. We believe there are a variety of ways around it, around that ruling, that there are a variety of ways that a constitutional line-item veto could be constructed.
The one that the President has sent forward today is I think among the most airtight. In fact, I don't think serious constitutional question could be raised about it, because instead of giving the President the authority unilaterally to line out some spending, what the President does is he takes the spending that he wants to take out of a bill, puts it into a separate piece of legislation, sends that forward to the Congress; the Congress then has -- that legislation then is entitled to expedited procedures in the Congress, and is entitled to an up or down vote in both houses within 10 days.
So the Congress, under the procedure that the President has proposed, is proposing today, still needs to act, actually needs to adopt legislation that would rescind the previously enacted spending. And going through that process, I think most constitutional scholars will agree, would put this procedure in a situation where it would not be subject to any serious constitutional challenge.
Q Now why is it entitled to expedited procedure? Is that part of the legislation?
DIRECTOR BOLTEN: Exactly. The legislation would say that the -- it lays out a number of procedural steps, including its introduction and referral to committee, how quickly the committees must act -- if they're going to act. If they don't act within, I believe it's five days, then it's automatic, the bill is automatically available for floor action. And the bill that's available for floor action can't be delayed in its consideration. So it's designed to have been an airtight way to guarantee an up or down vote within 10 days in both Houses.
Now the Congress can always, by majority vote -- by simple majority vote, refuse to enact it. But then that will have been done in the full light of day. And if there is a majority in both Houses to take out the spending, as I think we're hopeful there would be, then that becomes a statute on its own, and the President would sign the statute and the spending would be rescinded.
Q And that would take precedent over whatever had been passed previously?
DIRECTOR BOLTEN: Exactly.
Q Why is the President proposing this legislation only now? He's talked a lot about the need to curb federal spending, but I haven't heard him talk much about a line-item veto. Why the delay?
DIRECTOR BOLTEN: A line-item veto has been part of the President's proposals in each of his budgets over the last several years. But the reason why he is now separately sending forward today a specific proposal and asking the Congress to act on it has as much to do with the fertile ground that exists now in Congress. Congress is taking up issues of earmark reform. They are taking up issues of spending reform.
So now it seems like a -- while the President has been supportive of a line-item veto since he entered into office, now seems like a very good time to move, and we're optimistic, particularly given the supportive remarks from leadership on both sides of the Capitol. We're optimistic that this may be a year in which the Congress would be prepared to move and provide the President with a line-item authority.
Q Hi there. I was just wondering, have you been speaking to specific lawmakers? I remember last time, I think it was McCain and Coates who are very important in the Senate. And I just wondered whether you're sort of -- in pushing this legislation to particular lawmakers?
DIRECTOR BOLTEN: We have. We've been talking to the leadership on both sides of the Capitol and to other key members, relevant committee chairmen. In the Senate, I believe that Senators Frist and McCain are expected to be supportive of this legislation, maybe introducing it or something very similar to it. We need to get the legislation up there, let them review it in detail and see whether it's what they want to support. But we have had consultation with -- before sending this legislation up, with a number of members.
I've just been handed a note saying that Senator Frist is introducing it, along with the Republican Whip, Senator McConnell and with Senator McCain -- that the three of them will be jointly introducing this proposal.
Q Thank you.
DIRECTOR BOLTEN: Thank you.
Q Yes, Director, could you talk about what happens if Congress doesn't take -- doesn't follow the subscription in this legislation, doesn't take up one of these packages within 10 days? Does the President essentially get his way? Or is there any sort of enforcement mechanism that forces Congress to actually do something on it?
DIRECTOR BOLTEN: No, there's nothing -- if Congress fails to act, there's no particular mechanism that can force them to act, but the statute is drafted in a way that essentially gives it a privilege on the floor of both Houses. And I believe if there were just one member in each House that was willing to call for the bill to be brought forward, then unless the parliamentarians were in some fashion overruled, then the legislation would automatically come up.
The difficulty for a lot of legislation is, in the Senate in particularly, that it often requires a super majority even to get a bill considered on the floor. And this would provide you the opportunity -- the statute is drafted in a way so that it comes about as close as you can come to guaranteeing a vote. I don't think it's absolutely, a hundred percent certain it would get a vote, but I think it would require an extraordinary series of circumstances that would prevent the legislation from getting a vote.
Q Thank you.
Q I'm curious, Senator John Kerry has just put out a press release saying that he supports the item -- line-item veto, at least in concept, if not in the form of the bill that you're proposing. But have you folks been in touch with him, in terms of getting this thing -- getting a bipartisan package put together?
DIRECTOR BOLTEN: I don't know that we've been in touch with Senator Kerry's office directly. I believe, though, that the proposal that the President sent up today is entirely consistent with the proposal that Senator Kerry made during the 2004 campaign. I'm just looking here at something, at a little printout from their original campaign page, which says that under this proposal, the President, in signing a bill, could send back to Congress a list of specific spending items and tax expenditures he disapproves; new legislation rescinding any item on that list would be guaranteed an expedited up or down vote.
Q That sounds fairly similar.
DIRECTOR BOLTEN: Yes, it does sound -- so it may be that he has some technical differences, but if Senator Kerry remains consistent with the proposal he put out in 2004, I think he should be supportive of the approach that the President has sent forward today.
Q Director Bolten, how powerful a tool do you think this would be in practical terms? I mean, it only takes -- you have to get 50 percent, which means, if 50 percent are opposed, they could reject this, and if you send up a bundle, there could be one sympathetic thing in that bundle that people will hang their hat on to try to preserve. So how much spending do you think you could actually take out, if you had this authority?
DIRECTOR BOLTEN: It's a good question. I don't want to speculate on what amount would actually be taken out. It seems to me a lot of the good effect of having this authority in the first place would be in its deterrent -- that is, that the Congress, in the first place, is already moving toward earmark reform that is likely to involve greater elements of transparency. And I'm very hopeful that they'll adopt that.
On top of that, I think if members know that a special interest provision, especially one slipped in, in the dark, is likely to be susceptible to being taken out in a rescission package from the President, that it seems to me there would be a deterrent effect on that. And then beyond that, for what did get through, I think it can be an important and effective tool, but it's only one in the arsenal. And we need to do -- pursue all of the other things that I mentioned in my opening remarks.
Q But why hasn't Bush been more active in using his existing rescission authority? Given the fact that both Houses of Congress are of the same party, couldn't you shame them into delivering votes under existing authority?
DIRECTOR BOLTEN: Well, there is existing authority to send up rescission packages, but they -- and I think there's been something in the Impoundment Act for the last 30 years. But we've been unable to find any instances in which a President has successfully been able to use that authority. I think the principal defect of the authority that exists now is that there is no particular guarantee that a provision can or will be brought to a vote, or that a bill would not be amended once it hit the floor. And so that makes it very difficult to move a vehicle like that, even if everybody was agreed that on a particular appropriations bill, almost everyone was agreed, except for the sponsor, that this provision ought to come out, it would be very hard to control that vehicle if it were amendable on the floor once it got to the floor. The current authority is a very difficult and awkward way to do business. I think the legislation that the President is sending forward today cures that problem.
Now, in the bigger picture, the President has set some tight spending targets, especially in the last few years. And the Congress in its appropriations bills has tended to meet those targets -- and not always exactly in the way that the President has requested. But overall spending limits have tended to have been met.
Last year, the President asked that the Congress send appropriations bills that kept the overall growth in discretionary spending below the rate of inflation. The Congress delivered on that. He asked that the non-security elements of discretionary spending actually be cut. The Congress delivered on that. I often get asked why the President hasn't vetoed any bills. On his behalf I have issued probably dozens of veto threats, going in particular to the kinds of limits we have talked about. And last year's experience shows that the Congress and especially the congressional leadership have been cooperative in delivering those kinds of limits.
With respect to the specifics of an individual spending item with which the President might disagree, even though it's within an overall spending cap, I think this procedure that we're sending forward today would cure the difficulty that arises in trying to get that out of the spending once the bill -- once the overall bill is adopted.
Q I was just wondering in terms of the tax provisions, is it a change in position to now include the idea of targeted tax provisions as something to be cut out? And also when do you guys plan on sending the actual -- the language itself, when do you plan on distributing that?
DIRECTOR BOLTEN: I'm looking at Scott now. The language has not actually gone up yet; is that right? Yes, it should be very shortly. We do plan on -- okay, yes. We do plan on sending it up today, and it will be posted on the website, I would expect pretty soon after we're done with this call.
Refresh me on the first question. Tell me what you mean by change --
Q Whether it's a change in position to include targeted tax provisions. Because if I recall correctly, in the last two budgets at least, the line-item veto language only talked about spending, if I recall correctly. I may not recall correctly.
DIRECTOR BOLTEN: I'm not sure you are recalling correctly. But my recollection is that we probably didn't describe the proposals in as much detail that would have permitted addressing targeted tax provisions. But I don't think this is a change in position to include targeted tax provisions. I think that would always have been in a specific legislative proposal. It is in the one the President is sending forward now.
And I think in past versions of this kind of legislative line-item veto authority, they have typically also included targeted tax provisions. There may be some differences among -- in the proposals on how you define the targeted tax provisions. We define it as benefiting 100 or fewer taxpayers.
Q Thank you.
Q Hi. I was going to ask also about the -- why you were asking for this in view of the failure really to use the existing rescission authority, and you addressed that. But I'll just follow up and ask, you mentioned that there's -- you found no evidence that this had been used successfully by past presidents, but like the questioner noted, you've had a President who for six years has governed with his own party. Do you have a number on how many rescissions President Bush has actually sought during his term?
DIRECTOR BOLTEN: In the technical sense of rescissions under the Impoundment Act, I don't think we've tried to use that, and as I mentioned, we don't -- I don't think we have any cases of previous presidents successfully using it. There may have been one or two attempts. It was kind of hard to figure out from the historical documents over the last 30-some years that the provision has been in place. But we were unable to find evidence of its successful use.
Q But you never thought of using it, given that none of those past presidents, except for brief periods, had a Congress of their own party?
DIRECTOR BOLTEN: I would have -- maybe, you're probably much better on the history than I am, but I would expect that there be a number of presidents in the past 30 years who did have Congresses of congenial parties. But I don't think -- but it's not really an issue of having control of one House or another. As you know, it's very easy for a minority to block a bill from coming up. It's very easy for one person to propose an amendment that can ball up an entire bill.
So unless there's -- unless it's like the Defense Appropriations Bill or something like that, that needs to get enacted, it's very easy to prevent something that needs -- that doesn't really need to get enacted on the spot from being enacted. And it's very easy to add all sorts of additional material to it that unduly complicates it.
So the procedural array -- the procedure is very much arrayed against a President's ability to rescind individual spending items, regardless of who controls both Houses of Congress, and this legislation is designed to cure that.
Q And if I could just ask a quick follow-up to someone else's question, as well, that was -- you mentioned that the enforcement of this would be in -- the fact that the legislation you proposed would accord a privileged status under the rules for the -- and virtually force a vote. Do you have assurance from people from leadership on the Hill that that language will stay in the final legislation as it makes it's way through Congress?
DIRECTOR BOLTEN: No. Well, I don't think they can give us assurance of what final legislation will look like --
Q Or at least a suggestion that they'll try to protect it.
DIRECTOR BOLTEN: Well, I think Senator Frist has certainly indicated that he's prepared to introduce and support our version of the legislation. So I would think that while there are a number of ways to skin this cat procedurally, I don't think the final bill has to look exactly like what the President offered. I would expect that the leadership would understand and agree that without some relatively airtight protections for an up or down vote on a bill, we're not really advancing the ball very much. And our sense is -- from leadership and from key members -- is that they do want to advance the ball in this area in a responsible way that respects the balance of authorities and responsibilities between the two branches.
Q Thank you.
DIRECTOR BOLTEN: Thank you.
Q Yes, I just want to make sure I understand the procedure correctly. Once the President signs a bill or more than one bill that has provisions in it he'd like lined out, is there a specified time period in which he is to bundle these to send up to Congress?
DIRECTOR BOLTEN: There is not a specified period within which the President needs to send up the legislation. Now, I would expect that presidents would want to move relatively promptly because, for example, in the case of a one-year appropriation, you'd want to move relatively promptly to -- before too much of the spending got underway in that appropriation. And the way the appropriation cycle works now, it's common that appropriations bills are not enacted until the fiscal year has already begun. So spending authority can kick in immediately.
So I would expect the President would want to step in fairly promptly and send his bundle up. But in the proposal that we've sent up there is no limitation on the time in which the President could do that. And bear in mind that the President can also do it for mandatory spending and for targeted tax provisions where you wouldn't face that -- what amounts to basically a one-year clock that normally applies to appropriations.
Q With respect to mandatory spending, and this whole issue of entitlement reform, you said this year would be probably fertile ground for addressing the line-item veto. But I don't recall, is there a specific deadline for this entitlement reform panel to come forward with recommendations? Is this something you want to have done this year, as well? I just remember deadlines for that commission.
DIRECTOR BOLTEN: I think what you're referring to is the President's call in his State of the Union address for a bipartisan panel to come together and address entitlement reform. No, there's no specific time limit on it, other than that -- the sooner the better. But however long it takes, it's a project of utmost importance for the fiscal health of the country, and something that is, I think, going to be enormously -- if possible, enormously advantageous to our long run fiscal picture, but we understand it's not something that's likely to be done overnight.
Q Director Bolten, I have two questions. One, you mentioned prior veto threats, but wouldn't it carry more weight if the President actually did veto a spending bill? And why hasn't that been tried prior to seeking line-item veto? And then, secondly, about the line-item veto, is there specific language in the Court's 1998 decision that you could point to that you used to craft this language that you're using now?
DIRECTOR BOLTEN: Let me take the second one first. I may ask you to talk to our General Counsel specifically about the Supreme Court's decision. But as I mentioned at the outset, the concern that the justices raised there related to the President's ability unilaterally to line out some spending. And this is a situation in which the proposal that the President is sending forward today is very different in that it requires subsequent action by the Congress in order to actually effectuate the rescission.
So I think constitutional scholars will agree that this proposal doesn't even get into the neighborhood of concern that the Supreme Court was raising. And I don't think there could be any question about serious constitutional challenge to it.
Now, refresh me on the first part.
Q The first part was about the veto threats that you mentioned before. I just was wondering why hasn't he actually done an outright veto?
DIRECTOR BOLTEN: The President hasn't vetoed an appropriations bill because he hasn't needed to. The Congress has lived within the limits that he has set on appropriations bills -- as I said, not always with exactly the mix of spending that the President has requested, often with items that the President would not have included in a bill that the administration was writing on its own. This procedure was designed to cure that defect. But the President has not vetoed so far any spending bills because when he has outlined his overall spending targets, the leadership and appropriators have stepped forward and lived within those limits.
Q I wanted to ask you to go back to something you said at the beginning and make sure I understand. You talked about putting a hold on spending. And I remember when you were testifying earlier and put the budget out, you actually had a different form of this proposal. You talked about enhanced rescissions being great, but you were also interested in something quite different -- which was a much more strengthened executive authority to defer spending for a length of time before deficit reduction. What happened to that?
DIRECTOR BOLTEN: You're right that we have had a variety of proposals, or there are a variety of proposals that get to the underlying essence of a line-item veto authority. We had described in our budget another mechanism that would be an attempt to construct a constitutional way of giving the President more unilateral authority to line out spending items by deferring the spending. Our lawyers felt that that had a good chance of passing constitutional muster. But unlike the provision that we are sending forward today, there is the possibility, I think, of disagreement among scholars on the constitutionality of that.
And, second, and more important, the proposal that we are sending forward today is the one that seems to be attracting the most enthusiasm on Capitol Hill. And I think what we wanted to focus on, at least at this moment, was the kind of authority that we thought had the best chance of getting enacted this year. There are a lot of ways to skin this cat. This is a very effective way, and so we thought we -- the President made the judgment to go forward with the one that is most likely to attract support on the Hill now.
Q Two other quick questions. Some lawmakers have pointed out that the President would be very effective if he paid attention to what was in report language, which is where a lot of congressional spending emerges, it's not in the legislative language at all. So the question is, are you going to do anything to highlight that?
And then the third question I had was about the politics of this. You know, President Clinton found it quite a challenge to figure out what is someone's pet pork and someone's passion, and to use it at a time of his choosing that would not alienate his friends. So the two questions are, report language and the politics of trying to use this in a second term at the end of a presidency.
DIRECTOR BOLTEN: On report language, it is correct that a lot of earmarks show up in report language. The proposal that we're sending forward today would make it possible actually to line out the spending. If the administration were to ignore report language, then that spending would still be there. The money would still be available, but it wouldn't necessarily be available for the specific purpose that was included.
Q So you could log it out and then re-channel it?
DIRECTOR BOLTEN: If you were to ignore report language. The other problem is that if the administration were across-the-board to ignore report language, then those earmarks would presumably drift over into legislative language, which -- well, there might be some salutary effect of that, to give it more clarity in the light of day, but it wouldn't really get to the underlying problem.
If the President had the kind of authority in place that we're proposing today, he could line out a portion of spending -- let me see if I can give an example here. If there were $100 million worth of spending for a particular purpose, and there was a $10-million earmark in report language, under our proposal, the President could send forward a $10-million rescission and indicate that what he was blocking was the spending connected to the earmark in the report language. So that would really be the effective way to go at the problem.
Q So he'd be using a pry bar to try to get at something he really can't legislatively, but he'd be calling it to their attention and saying this is what I'm going to do if you don't get rid of it?
DIRECTOR BOLTEN: I think -- well, in the example I was giving, he would --
Q Because he can re-channel the money.
DIRECTOR BOLTEN: Yes. In the example I was giving, he would actually be taking the money out. Now, refresh me on your second question.
Q The politics of it.
DIRECTOR BOLTEN: The politics? Yes, the politics can be hard, and the President understood that going into this. But that's part of being President, is making some hard choices and sometimes finding yourself in conflict even with friends and supporters on the Hill. But if it's the right thing to do, then the President will be inclined to do it.
Q Did he have it as governor?
DIRECTOR BOLTEN: Very good question, Alexis. I do not -- there are 43 states that have some form of a line-item veto. Hang on one sec, let me see if my book tells me here. In Texas, there was a form of line-item veto in effect when the President was governor.
Q I was curious about -- does the President intend to go after every single earmark? And if he doesn't do that, doesn't he open himself up to criticism that he's letting one political favor go through over another? And the second question is, how much of an expansion of presidential authority do you see here? Modest, big, whatever?
DIRECTOR BOLTEN: To the second question first, I see a balancing of authority. With this proposal, I think the responsibilities of the two branches would be well balanced in that the President would have the ability to line out an item, but only with the approval of a majority of Congress. It seems to me that's a responsible balancing of the responsibilities that ought not be considered a challenge to those who are staunch defenders of legislative prerogative.
Refresh me on the first please.
Q The first question has to do with how do you pick among earmarks? I mean, are you going after all earmarks? Are you going to try to -- doesn't that get the President a messy little political game in Congress?
DIRECTOR BOLTEN: Let's wait and see. And one step at a time, let's get the procedure in place. I don't think that you would necessarily see any President going after all earmarks all at once. There is constitutional authority in the legislative branch to say how the money will be spent. The important part about earmarks is that they need to be transparent, done in the light of day, and as we dictate how spending is allocated, it needs to be done in a way that's likely to benefit everybody -- not a particular jurisdiction.
Q Back to this issue of report language, I'm just sort of curious why there isn't -- why the President doesn't consider really going after some of these earmarks, particularly ones that have been considered to be egregious by groups and put out a list of -- here is a list of earmarks that my agencies have found particularly to be wasteful and I'm not going to do them -- and sort of pick a fight with Congress and force them to put it in legislative language?
DIRECTOR BOLTEN: Well, overall, we have gone after a number of earmarks and put them -- proposed them for elimination in subsequent budgets. We've published a volume of major reductions and eliminations. They go to some of the broader issues that have been raised. But like I said, simply targeting earmarks that are in report language doesn't necessarily get at the problem because I think, A, earmarks are likely just to drift over more into legislative language; and, B, ignoring an earmark in report language doesn't necessarily get rid of the spending, which this legislation that we're proposing today would give the President the opportunity to do.
Q But can you just go over one last time some layman's terms, and I know McClellan had talked about it before, and I'm sure you probably talked about it at the top of the call, just more about the language or the difference from the ruling, the Supreme Court eight years ago?
DIRECTOR BOLTEN: The key difference is that the proposal that the President is making today would give him the authority to line out individual elements of spending -- but, unlike the provision that was found unconstitutional a decade ago, it would not give him the unilateral authority to cancel spending. The President would send forward a legislative package with the rescissions proposed in that package, then available for an up or down vote in both Houses of Congress within 10 days.
DIRECTOR BOLTEN: Is that clear?
Q It's definitely very clear. And then the other thing you had mentioned, and I think this is when I had just jumped on the call late, was that you were saying that you see a lot of enthusiasm in Congress on this. Can you just -- what are you hearing from Congress, in this sense it sounds like more people, especially now -- it sounds like Kerry is on board with this new language that you're proposing. Can you just talk quickly about that?
DIRECTOR BOLTEN: We've done a number of soundings on the Hill, and listened to what a number of members have said in public and in private. And while something like this is always difficult to do, especially something that affects the relationship between the Congress and the President, we're getting a broad-based indication of support from both right and left, and Republican and Democrat. We're hopeful it will be enough to get a proposal through the Congress this year.
Thank you all very much.
END 4:21 P.M. EST