Presidential Power of the Purse

March 27, 1995

Much as we rejoice in Senate passage of a bill giving presidents unprecedented power to block pork-barrel spending, it must be reconciled with a different attack on the same problem approved by the House. Though sentiment for cutting the debilitating federal deficit is thus building nicely, pleaders for preservation of Congress' much-abused prerogatives will do their best to tie up this much-needed legislation in conference.

Of the two approaches, the Senate's is preferable because it is less vulnerable to constitutional challenge. It would take each of the 13 massive, pork-packed appropriations bills now enacted yearly by Congress and break them up into thousands of separate line-item measures open to presidential veto. It would also give presidents added veto power over tax-break bills that give favorable treatment to limited numbers of well-situated citizens. Vetoes can be overridden only by two-thirds votes in each chamber.

While the Senate process appears cumbersome, it does not fundamentally or legally change existing procedures for the handling of legislation. The House version, in contrast, would authorize presidents to rescind specific line items in omnibus appropriations bills, subject to congressional override. The House bill, part of Speaker Newt Gingrich's "Contract with America," would almost surely end up in court on grounds that it gives the executive branch excessive leverage to alter legislation passed by Congress.

It is of utmost importance that the Senate and House bills be reconciled as a show of congressional determination to curb the deficit spending that is undercutting the value of the dollar, reducing the national savings rate and contributing to record foreign trade deficits.

World financial markets misinterpreted defeat of the Balanced Budget Amendment as a sign that Congress would not or could not rein in its profligacy. It was quite the opposite -- a hint of congressional resolve to cut the budget immediately instead of ducking behind a constitutional amendment that would not take effect for years. Although the line-item veto legislation attacks only "discretionary" spending that must be enacted on a yearly basis, it may embolden Congress to put the clamps on runaway "entitlement" spending as well.

Unfortunately, Maryland's two Democratic senators, Paul Sarbanes and Barbara Mikulski, did not support the line-item veto proposal that passed the Senate last week. They were aligned, as usual, with that faction of their party identified with big spending regardless of the debt being piled on future generations. Fortunately, a sufficient number of moderate/conservative Democrats joined the Republican majority to make this a bipartisan effort, enthusiastically endorsed by President Clinton.

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