The line-item veto for George W. Bush?
Honey, they're shrinking democracy
March 11, 2006
By Roger Bybee and Carolyn Winter
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
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
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 email@example.com.