Bush May Veto Congressional Spending Bills
ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel.
MICHELE NORRIS, host:
And I'm Michele Norris.
This week, Congress gets down to the nitty-gritty of the federal budget. Leaders are pouring over thousands of programs and agencies adding and subtracting dollars. But they're not making the White House too happy. In fact, the president's advisers are telling him to do something unprecedented. They're recommending that Mr. Bush veto any bills that spend more than he requested.
So who is supposed to control the federal budget? Congress or the White House? NPR's Andrea Seabrook delves into this year's budget battle, taking us first to the national archives.
ANDREA SEABROOK: I'm standing in front of the actual Constitution of the United States of America. There are tourists streaming in front of it, to look at these four big pages in longhand script that are locked down in a big brass case with shatterproof glass, climate controlled, low-light, completely secured condition. And I'm standing here because this is a really good place to talk about the struggle between the White House and the Capitol, because it's the constitution itself that sets up this struggle, and especially when it comes to, believe it or not, the budget.
Government, pared down to its most basic function, is something that collects tax money and then spends it on programs, on agencies, on national defense, all of these things. Now, the Constitution in front of me gives the power to spend that tax money to Congress. But it also gives the power to veto what Congress does to the president.
Representative DAVID OBEY (Democrat, Wisconsin; Chairman, House Appropriations Committee): And this has nothing to do with party. It has everything to do with a fair balance between what one branch of government does and what the other branch of government does.
SEABROOK: That's David Obey, a Democrat from Wisconsin. He chairs the House Appropriations Committee, the panel that works out exactly how much money each program in a federal budget should get. Obey is a powerful guy who's very blunt. At a recent hearing, he was mad as a hornet over earmarks, or what some people call pork. That's money put in the budget for a particular project in a particular lawmaker's district. Remember that so-called bridge to nowhere in Alaska, or the Iowa indoor rainforest? Right. That.
Some analysts say earmarking federal money is, in fact, unconstitutional, but it is the way things are done around the Capitol by both parties. And Obey says, he got fed up.
Rep. OBEY: So last year, we suspended all earmarking for a year until we could reform the process to try to give the institution some protections against idiot members who asks for stupid things.
SEABROOK: This year, earmarks are back. But now, Congress passed a bill saying lawmakers' names will be attached to the money they request. And that doesn't seem to have stopped anybody. Obey says, this year, he's gotten 36,000 requests for earmarked projects - 36,000 from 435 members of Congress. Obey says colleagues act like he's an ATM.
Meanwhile, the White House has come down against all these earmarking saying it's inflating the size of the federal budget to a point where President Bush should veto entire spending bills. This, too, has Obey angry.
Rep. OBEY: The White House has a quaint position. They say that any change to their budget is an earmark and therefore, illegitimate. That makes the president a king, not a president. With all due respect, the Congress has the power of the purse and we're going to exercise it.
SEABROOK: So while Obey is no fan of earmarks, he's also not willing to ban them entirely. And he suggests the veto threats are just political bluster, especially since the White House has its own pet projects it funds in the budget.
I took Obey's complaints up Pennsylvania Avenue to the White House Office of Management and Budget and to OMB director Rob Portman. I asked him, when Republicans controlled Congress and spending exploded they didn't recommend that the president veto congressional spending bills, why now?
Mr. ROB PORTMAN (Director, White House Office of Management and Budget): Well, honestly, it's because we always had an agreement, at least, from the Republican leadership - not necessarily from the Appropriations Committee, but from the leadership - that they would not go over a certain top line amount.
SEABROOK: And so what it sounds like you're saying is, with the Republicans in charge of the Congress, you had an agreement not to go over the president's top line. But you don't have that with the Democrats, so the veto threat is because Democrats are in charge.
Mr. PORTMAN: Yes. We have just the opposite with Democrats. They're not only saying that we're not going to commit to your top line, Mr. President, they're saying, we have our own top line, which is higher.
SEABROOK: About $25 billion higher, says Portman. Though that's just a fraction of a $3 trillion budget. Is it a time when the Congress and the president agree that federal budget must be brought under control?
At the National Archives, tourists pour over that sacred American document, the Constitution. A girl scout, Kathleen Coleman(ph) of South Carolina reads one part.
Ms. KATHLEEN COLEMAN (Girl Scout, South Carolina): No money shall be drawn from the treasury but in consequence of the appropriations made by law.
SEABROOK: And Ashley O'Mara(ph) from New York reads another.
Ms. ASHLEY O'MARA: Every bill, which shall have passed the House of Representatives and the Senate, shall, before it becomes a law, be presented to the president of the United States. If he approve, he shall sign it. But if not, he shall return it.
SEABROOK: These girls have figured out what few Americans recognize - that the fight over federal money is written right there in longhand.
Andrea Seabrook, NPR News, Washington.
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