Commentary: Put This Budget Scalpel In The President's Hands

In Washington, Congress is quarreling about how much to trim the infant-formula subsidy to reduce the budget deficit. But 15 miles to the east, the Naval Academy Dairy Farm faces another dilemma: What to do with the milk it produces when the midshipmen leave for their summer vacations. The farm isn't allowed to sell its blue-and-gold cartons of milk commercially, and the 150 cows don't know enough to watch the calendar.

Meanwhile, taxpayers might ask a more important question: Why must the Naval Academy operate an admittedly inefficient 865-acre dairy farm when it could buy the 812 gallons it uses each day from a wholesaler--and save 30 cents per gallon? The answers are hardly satisfying: That's the way Annapolis has done it ever since 1913, when a typhoid scare led the Navy to procure an on-the-hoof milk supply. Neighbors want to preserve the only dairy left in Maryland's rapidly developing Anne Arundel County. And most important, government is inherently wasteful.

But there is hope. Congress is debating whether to grant the President a line-item veto, a crucial provision in the Republicans' Contract With America. In its limited House-passed form, the legislation would allow the President to kill anachronisms such as the academy's dairy farm or, say, sell the nation's 32 billion-cubic-foot supply of helium, enough to last 100 years, now that the Navy has abandoned the blimp. Congress could restore these spending items only with a two-thirds majority.

ONLY THE RUTHLESS. The Senate is now considering a GOP version that could go even further in making new spending on entitlements and targeted tax breaks subject to the Presidential scalpel. "That could really start to save some money if you had a President with a strong emphasis on deficit reduction," says Martha Phillips, director of the Concord Coalition, a group advocating a balanced budget.

Skeptics note that the veto is only as powerful as the executive wielding it. And although the governors of 43 states enjoy varying versions of the device, many shy away from using it. As governor of Arkansas, Bill Clinton employed it just nine times in 10 years. "There's little reason to believe, based on the states, that it will have a significant impact," says Joseph White, a budget analyst at the Brookings Institution. "Besides, you have a big country, and you would like it to be prosperous. Spreading money around is one way to do it."

But that has proved wasteful. Take the $43 million-a-year National Drug Intelligence Center (NDIC), stuck in a former department-store building in Johnstown, Pa. It's there because a then-appropriations subcommittee chairman, Representative John P. Murtha (D-Pa.), sneaked a provision into a Pentagon spending bill in 1991 that established the office in his hometown. The center's ostensible role is to help coordinate policy among the many agencies fighting the $13 billion-a-year war on drug trafficking--the Drug Enforcement Administration, the FBI, and the CIA, among others. But the NDIC is so isolated that it has to maintain a 15-person satellite headquarters in the Washington suburb of McLean, Va., near where the director of the NDIC actually lives. As one spokesperson explains: "It's a national center, and we have to inter-act within a Washington environment."

READY TO SLICE. Add up hundreds of such boondoggles, and they begin amounting to real money. A General Accounting Office report that focused on nonentitlement spending found that $70 billion could have been saved between 1984 and 1989 if a line-item veto had been used on programs to which the White House objected. Citizens Against Government Waste, a public advocacy group, found $10 billion in pork "hidden away" in government spending bills this year alone, including $3.8 million in "wood-utilization research." The libertarian Cato Institute estimates that as much as $10 billion a year could be saved.

Certainly, President Clinton wouldn't win many votes in Annapolis or Anne Arundel County by closing down the dairy. And the middies would have to find a new home for their mascot--a goat. Still, restoring some sanity to government budgeting might make political hay in the long run. And with the money saved on milk production, the Academy might build the goat spanking new quarters fit for an admiral.

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