Democratic Underground

The line-item veto for George W. Bush? Honey, they're shrinking democracy

March 11, 2006
By Roger Bybee and Carolyn Winter

In another chilling grab for more power, the Bush Administration is asking Congress for a line-item veto. It is hard to imagine a more dangerous outcome, giving a power-hungry Administration the ability to legislate directly from the Oval Office.

This move is another example of an alarming trend toward changing the rules so that the democratic process is inhibited, with the Administration unilaterally enacting illegal policies (e.g., to conduct a secret wiretapping operation) or the Republicans in Congress abusing their majority position to silence the minority, another major facet of this attack on democracy.

In this context, it is extremely important that the public realizes the danger to democracy inherent in a line-item veto. This measure, whether at the state level or the federal level, allows the executive to rewrite legislation by inserting their own budgetary agenda in the face of the democratically enacted budget. The present Administration undoubtedly wants this power to drastically slash the remaining crumbs of social spending, increase subsidies to favored campaign contributors, and build up the military.

At a time when Bush's popularity is at an all time low (around 34% to 38%) due to low credibility, mismanagement (as exemplified by Katrina and Iraq), and abuse of power; it is striking to see Bush go on the offensive to gain even greater power via the line-item veto. It is vital that progressives articulate their opposition quickly, before this bid for autocracy gains any momentum.

In the years of the Bush Administration and the Republican dominance of both houses of Congress, we have seen a significant increase in both executive powers and the power of the dominant party. Both the Administration and Republican loyalists shamelessly change the rules to increase their domination of the legislative process and, in other words, democracy itself.

The media and the Democrats have been fairly mute on the inroads on democratic process while the Republicans have worked to create one-party domination. While the media has voiced occasional comment on these abuses, there is a lack of consistency in their monitoring of this situation. A refreshing exception was the March 6th New York Times editorial that noted, "President Bush ignores the Constitution and the laws of the land, and the cowardly, rigidly partisan majority in Congress helps him out by rewriting the laws he's broken."

For example, the Times cites the legislation written in response to the 2004 court ruling that detention camps fall under the laws of the land. In addition, they note the recent response to wiretapping is along the same lines, as are the merely cosmetic changes to the Patriot Act.

Even less visible have been the Republican-imposed changes to longstanding congressional rules, now modified to obliterate the voice of the minority Democrats. For many decades, the majority party in Congress was prevented by deeply-rooted procedures from wielding absolute power. The minority party could always offer amendments to legislation; conflicts between House and Senate versions of a bill were resolved by conference committees that included both parties; legislation required hearings and deliberation before votes were held.

But under the leadership of Speaker Dennis Hastert and former Whip Tom DeLay, such democratic niceties have been tossed overboard. First, they decided to declare 85% of House bills in 2004 to be "emergency" legislation that could not be amended, according to the Boston Globe. Thus, Republicans no longer have to face embarrassing questions about why they voted to give contracts to corporations chartered in offshore tax havens.

Second, Republicans simplified the work of conference committees (until very recently) by simply eliminating Democrats from them (or by admitting only pro-corporate Democrats like Sens. Max Baucus and. John Breaux). The net result is that bills often emerge from conference committees with an even stronger pro-corporate slant. For example, one conference committee produced a watered-down bill on concentration of media-ownership that had been already been rejected by both houses.

Third, the once-hallowed process of holding hearings and conducting serious deliberation on major legislation has been similarly jettisoned. Sometimes conference committees are the vehicle for bypassing the committee hearing process; other times, Republican leaders simply rush legislation to the floor.

Perhaps the most galling example of how the new regime of one-party Republican rule operates was the enactment of the now-notorious Medicare Part D drug benefit. With drug company lobbyists overseeing key sections of the bill in a closed-door conference committee session, the legislation defied the clear wishes of many House Reopublicans. As Robert Kuttner noted in American Prospect, "A majority of House members were sympathetic to amendments allowing drug imports from Canada and empowering the federal government to negotiate wholesale drug prices. But by prohibiting floor amendments, DeLay made sure that the bill passed as written by the leadership, and that members were spared the embarrassment (or accountability) of voting against amendments popular with constituents."

The final product was a bill of more than 1,000 pages-much of it originating with the conference committee-that members had one day to study. With some Republicans seeking provisions for government-negotiated prices and Canadian imports and other GOP members worrying about the final price-tag (it turned out that a top official had been intimidated into silence on a secret estimate of $100 billion more), DeLay and Hastert were forced to pull out all the stops to win the vote. In the wee hours of Nov. 22, 2003, the Republican leaders kept extending the normal 15-minute voting period until they could round up enough votes. By threatening the loss of committee assignments and wielding promises of increased campaign funding, the leadership finally had lined up a bare majority after a record three hours, at which point the vote was immediately held.

The Medicare drug bill exemplifies how one-party rule distorts virtually every policy initiative-tax breaks, under-pricing of oil leases on public land, de-regulation of mining safety, to name a few- so that it is transparently skewed to benefit the wealthiest 1% and other Republican donors. But fed by these tax breaks for the hyper-wealthy and unprecedented military spending of $462.7 billion sought for fiscal 2007 (not including Iraq and Afghanistan!), the US is facing ever-mounting deficits as far as the eye can see.

Now under pressure from even Republicans to finally show some semblance of "fiscal discipline," President George W. Bush wants the line-item veto to "ensure that taxpayer dollars are spent wisely." Based on his past record, it is safe to predict that Bush's veto pen will never touch tax cuts for those least in need of them nor the self-perpetuating war against "terror" in Iraq. Bush will continue to concentrate his cuts on programs like special education and commodity food programs that serve 420,000 elderly each month, as proposed in his new budget.

Progressives, must wake up and recognize the multi-faceted Republican threat to democracy, as Sen. Harry Reid has. Most urgently, we must concentrate our efforts on preventing Bush from obtaining the line-item veto, an autocratic new weapon of mass destruction aimed squarely at programs for our most vulnerable citizens.

Roger Bybee and Carolyn Winter are Milwaukee-based writers and progressive activists. They can be reached at

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