Presidential power of the purse Line item veto: New authority to cut spending responds to public demand.

April 01, 1996

MORE THAN 120 YEARS after a line item veto was first proposed, Congress has at last voted to surrender an important part of its budgetary powers to the presidency. Beginning next year, the chief executive will be able to pencil out items in big spending bills he opposes without rejecting the entire measures. Equally important, he can resist new health and retirement entitlements and special interest tax breaks affecting fewer than 100 people.

For years, starting with the New Deal, Americans favored higher spending for popular programs they associated with a benign government. But after President Reagan took office, proclaiming government is the enemy, a sea change began. Mr. Reagan tripled the national debt by cutting taxes without reining in appropriations. And as federal interest costs skyrocketed, the public learned to hate deficits and love the idea of a balanced budget.

The result? President Clinton has been willing to defy his own party, including all six Democrats in the Maryland delegation, to get behind a line-item veto plan he worked out with Senate majority leader Bob Dole.

With a line item veto in place, future presidents will have no excuses. For the first time, they will have authority to enforce spending cuts and eliminate revenue-losing tax breaks.

Critics of this historic shift in the balance of power toward the executive branch contend it is both unconstitutional and dangerous. It would give presidents the leverage to punish or reward individual lawmakers by putting projects important to their home districts on the line. Mr. Dole contends that neither he nor Mr. Clinton would be that "vindictive."

But what about their successors? Good question. Under the new legislation, Congress can scrap the line-item veto after eight years. In the meantime, it can override any presidential veto by a two-thirds vote.

Other critics contend that the line-item veto will have only marginal impact on government spending, especially if existing entitlement programs escalate unchecked. Also a good point. The best way for Congress to hold down spending is not to pass the buck to the executive but to do the job itself.

Unfortunately, the record in recent years is one of congressional failure to respond to the growing public demands for fiscal responsibility. The line-item veto may be far from perfect, but it is the best palliative that our political system has to offer at the present time. President Clinton and Senator Dole have an achievement that is a credit to both.

Pub Date: 4/01/96

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