Item veto to be law U.S. presidents have coveted device since days of Grant

Court challenge likely

Exemptions included, such as big tax cuts and entitlements

March 31, 1996|By Carl M. Cannon | Carl M. Cannon,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- This week, Bill Clinton signs a bill giving the president a power coveted by every American chief executive since Ulysses S. Grant.

Unless the federal courts intervene, starting in January, the president will have authority to delete individual items in spending bills passed on Capitol Hill.

This power to second-guess the legislative branch is called the line-item veto, and although 43 of the nation's 50 governors use it to balance budgets, Congress has never consented to give it to presidents. Until now.

The bill, approved Thursday by the Senate and Friday by the House, was sought by Mr. Clinton.

Already, Clinton administration budget officials are scouring budgets for targets. Meanwhile, White House political advisers are evaluating the likely public relations fallout of penciling out various programs.

The line-item veto is certain to be challenged in court as an unconstitutional intrusion of the executive branch into Congress' budgetary authority. And even its most ardent supporters concede that this device cannot, by itself, fix the burgeoning national debt.

For one thing, the bill exempts entitlement spending, which con- sumes well over half the spending on federal programs. Thus, the president could not use his line-item veto to reduce spending on, for example, Medicare, Medicaid or welfare. Neither could he touch any major tax cuts.

But it's an important start, say budget-conscious supporters. Line-item veto, they insist, represents a fundamental change in the culture of Washington.

"The American public deserves better than business as usual," said Sen. John McCain, an Arizona Republican who pushed unswervingly for the line-item veto. "Congress created the problem [of debt], and it's Congress' responsibility to fix it."

For two centuries, members of Congress who wanted to steer federal dollars back home could slip pet projects -- often called "pork" -- into the budget by amending essential spending bills.

Those lawmakers who relied on the same device for their own districts were reluctant to blow the whistle on their colleagues. Presidents have had to either shut down an entire government agency or accept those pork-barrel projects that were driving up the budget deficits.

Until 20 years ago, a president could simply refuse to spend some of the money, a procedure known as "impoundment." Richard Nixon was the last to use it; Congress outlawed impoundment in 1974. But the deficit-spending problems faced by Nixon and his predecessors were minuscule compared with those of today.

The national debt was in the range of $250 billion during Nixon's first term. This year, it will pass $5 trillion. Servicing that debt -- making interest payments without paying off any principal -- now costs taxpayers as much as the total debt 20 years ago. Annual interest payments nearly equal total defense spending.

The tide on the line-item veto began to turn in the 1990s. Early in the decade, a $500,000 grant for a rural development project, centering on the Lawrence Welk birthplace, was cast as a symbol of needless pork after a North Dakota senator slipped it into the Agriculture Committee's spending bill.

George Bush ridiculed the project in his 1992 State of the Union address while asking for the line-item veto. This was nothing new for presidents. Grant first asked for the line-item veto in the 1870s; Ronald Reagan made a forceful plea for it in his 1985 State of the Union speech. What was significant this time was that the Lawrence Welk whistle-blowers were members of Congress -- including those who had rural redevelopment requests of their own.

To fiscal conservatives, congressional complaints about pork had a "stop-me-before-I-kill-again" feel to it, recalled Republican economist Stephen Moore.

Two senators who noticed this shift in attitude were John McCain and his Republican colleague Daniel R. Coats of Indiana, and they began gathering signatures for a line-item veto bill. According to Mr. Coats, it was the 200th time in U.S. history that such an attempt had been made. All the others had died in committee, blocked by procedural maneuvers or stalled to death by filibusters.

This time was different. "The question was raised: 'Why would Congress cede its independence?' " Mr. Coats asked. "Because there has been an extraordinary abuse of the power of spending."

A big question now is what the president will do with this power. Presumably, if Mr. Dole is elected, he'll have a cooperative Republican Congress that won't make him exercise too many vetoes of any kind. Mr. Clinton's situation would be different: He'd still probably be battling to keep most social programs intact, but he'd also want to use the line-item veto to trim what he considered extraneous pork, aides said.

Asked to identify likely targets of a presidential line-item veto, Mr. Clinton's chief of staff, Leon E. Panetta, listed three areas:

* Roughly $70 million in "unneeded" military construction projects.

* Additional C-26 planes.

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