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Defund the veep!

So a good-government busybody embarrassed the vice president last week. What else is new? In the six-plus years of Dick Cheney's stay at One Observatory Circle, new revelations of vice presidential shadiness are as regular as the metronomic beats of the vice presidential pacemaker. And no more likely to dent Cheney's formidable power over matters of state. The latest outrage, unearthed by Congressman Henry Waxman's Oversight and Government Reform Committee, takes the form of documents showing that Cheney exempted himself from government rules for handling classified information--and then, in a fit of pique, tried to abolish the agency in charge of enforcing said rules. Insofar as the latest revelations have drawn attention, it is largely because of the particularly oddball legal reasoning Cheney's office employed: Because the Constitution delegates the veep as president of the Senate, his lawyers argued, Cheney was not covered by rules governing executive branch officials.

Waxman's revelations had the good fortune of arriving just as The Washington Post started a four-part series on the vice president's secretive world, adding a hefty dose of context to the floating anti-Cheney outrage. But don't bet on any changes in his role in the White House. If this latest Cheney eruption is like the other controversies stirred by critical reporters and legislators--say, his refusal to say just who works for his office, his refusal to follow the White House practice of releasing visitors' logs, his eerie silence after shooting a man in the face, or his long legal fight to prevent disclosure of the membership of his energy task force--the furor will quickly die down in the face of the vice president's intransigence. Within a couple months, it will be remembered only as yet another component in the litany of complaints from editorialists or good-government types dedicated to hounding Cheney. As a guy who doesn't embarrass easily, he can count himself particularly lucky to have as his main adversaries a class of people whose main source of muscle is the power to embarrass.

If the Democrats really want to force the vice president to behave more to their liking, or at least to obey the law, the best bet would be to move the Cheney-hunting portfolio away from Waxman and into the hands of the folks with the real power: the appropriators. Though the specifics of his power are based on the say-so of the president, and the exact numbers of his staff remain hidden, at least some component of Cheney's executive lifestyle comes from the dollars-and-cents stuff of the federal budget. Thus Congressman Rahm Emanuel last week said he'd introduce legislation putting a hold on Cheney's budget until he clarifies which branch of government he belongs to.

But given the array of disagreements between Democrats and Cheney over the basic rules of government, Emanuel's measure should go further still. There's no reason Congress couldn't tie some substantive strings to the roughly $7 million a year that taxpayers spend on the care, feeding, and staff of the vice president. Of that money, about $4.4 million is designated "[f]or necessary expenses to enable the Vice President to provide assistance to the President" and another $320,000 goes to cars, expenses and "the care, operation, refurnishing, improvement, and to the extent not otherwise provided for, heating and lighting, including electric power and fixtures, of the official residence." A sentence here or there in the federal budget could tie funding for that residence, to, say, regular official disclosure of its visitors. Likewise, Congress could leave it up to the vice president as to whether he would comply with executive orders on classified information or lose a hefty chunk of his personnel budget. And so on.

A knock on such hardball tactics might be that they could precipitate a constitutional battle over separation of powers. Emanuel himself acknowledged that his idea was a "stunt." But here, Cheney's legal team has shown the way for those taxpayers who would like to see him put on a shorter leash. The remaining $2.2 million of his budget, after all, comes out of the legislative budget and relates to the other constitutional duty that Cheney has recently touted: the veep's status as president of the Senate. If Cheney's going to be such a stickler for constitutional lines of command, he would surely have to concede that Senators themselves have the right to decide how much money their branch's president ought to spend on personnel. If that number drops to zero, well, he should have thought of that before stiffing their requests for transparency.

Beyond an opportunity to settle some scores with a secretive Washington operator, a legislative fight over Cheney's budget would also mean a chance to discuss a 30-year history of extralegal expansion of that office's powers. Under the law, the vice president has almost no official duties: The Constitution empowers him to break ties in the Senate, a 48-year-old piece of legislation makes him an ex officio member of the National Security Council, and that's about it. (Yeah, yeah, I know: He's also a member of the Smithsonian board.) For decades, this resulted in a tremendous waste of Washington's human capital, as leading political figures like Alben Barkley and Hubert Humphrey were relegated to years of funeral-attending and VFW speechifying when they could have been helping lead their country. John Nance Garner, FDR's first vice president, famously said the job was "not worth a bucket of warm piss."

Ironically, the rise of the imperial vice presidency coincides with the assault, so lamented by Cheney, on the imperial presidency. In 1974, as Richard Nixon was being driven from office, the veep got his own official mansion. Three years later, informal Jimmy Carter gave Walter Mondale a formal office in the White House. Of course, everything he did there was at the sufferance of the president: Carter, Reagan, or Clinton could all have cut their vice presidents out of the loop for any reason, or no reason at all. But the country slowly got used to the idea of an engaged, quasi-executive vice president who served on the basis of his elected power and not just on the basis of his relationship with the president. Not even Dan Quayle could undo the precedent. Thirty years down the road, that office not only remains in the White House, but its visitors' log is off limits to the general public.

It's about time we as a nation decided to talk about that. Yes, presidents should be able to use the people they want to as advisors, troubleshooters, or even, in the case of the current veep, as vaguely menacing human disaster areas. But just because the veep has been elected to one very narrowly defined constitutional office doesn't mean he should get to behave differently from his colleagues when it comes to the rather more prosaic position of taxpayer-funded executive branch flunky. Now that Cheney's legal squad has started that conversation, Democratic budget-writers ought to join it. Compared to Cheney's role, Garner's might not be so bad. Emanuel et al have the power to shape the vice presidential budget in such a way that Garner's warm pitcher is about all he could afford.

By Michael Currie Schaffer