Washington as Usual

July 25, 1995

Why has momentum sputtered out of the drive to give the president power to veto specific line items in appropriations bills despite all the Washington rhetoric about the need to cut excess government spending and balance the budget?

Why is Speaker Newt Gingrich now saying Congress won't get to this issue this year after thumping his chest last winter and declaring: "For those who think that this city has to always break down into partisanship, you have a Republican majority giving to a Democratic president this year, without any gimmicks, an increased power over spending, which we think is an important step for America"?

How can President Clinton launch a budget attack on the GOP yesterday without saying one single word about his dwindling PTC prospects for getting the line-item veto power he has long demanded?

The answer, of course, is that there is a huge chasm in D.C. between stated and real intent.

There are a few true believers on Capitol Hill who know Congress is institutionally incapable of limiting itself to a pork-free diet and want to turn the keys to the smoke house over to the president. But deep within the legislative branch lies a stubborn resistance to giving up prerogatives to the executive branch, even prerogatives that have been grossly abused and mishandled for years.

Mr. Gingrich's refusal to appoint House members to a conference committee to reconcile differences between the House and Senate line-item bills directly contradicts his "Contract with America" assertion that a presidential line-item veto "is necessary to restore fiscal responsibility to an out-of-control Congress."

Some in his ranks even have said why. House Appropriations Committee chairman Bob Livingston says, "We may not want to give it to this president right at the outset, but let's give it to him eventually." Translation: let the GOP majority pass its tax and spending bills, including lots of back-home bacon, before giving Bill Clinton power to chop and slice. Rep. Peter Blute, R-Mass.: "Presidential politics may be part of it." Translation: if not this year, forget about election-year 1996.

As for Mr. Clinton, he has been singularly silent (a) because he does not want to get into a fight with Sen. Robert Byrd and other Democratic legislators who believe in all budget power to the Congress and (b) because he would not mind seeing the Republicans flub this issue along with the failed balanced budget amendment and the foundering regulatory reform campaign.

To take Capitol Hill chatter at face value, one would think there are insurmountable differences between the Senate and House proposals to allow presidents to eliminate specific items in appropriations bills. Don't believe it. All sides in the political arena are magnifying differences over trivial details in order to avoid doing anything. This president -- any president -- will not get line-item veto power unless there is overwhelming public pressure to put real discipline into the federal budget process.

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