WASHINGTON -- President Clinton's budget has not yet been sent to Capitol Hill, and action on it is months away. But special interest groups are already mobilizing in an effort to push the president to use his new line-item-veto power to alter the nation's spending priorities.
The line-item veto empowers the president to strike individual items in spending bills he signs. Congress can restore canceled items only by passing another bill with a two-thirds majority.
The measure was designed as a way to gain control over the swelling national debt. But proponents and critics agree it is far more than a simple accounting tool.
"It has the potential of drastically changing the way business is done in Washington," said Rob Shapiro, vice president of the Progressive Policy Institute, a moderate Democratic think tank. "Not only does it give the president significant new power over the appropriations process, but it could give him a way of exerting political pressure over Congress to carry out his policy agenda."
Last week, American Rivers, a conservation group, targeted about 30 water projects that are on the drawing boards of the Army Corps of Engineers and that are expected to be approved by Congress this year -- and asked Clinton to dispatch them into oblivion.
Scott Faber, an official with the group, said that canceling expensive dams was entirely in keeping with Clinton's pledge to protect natural resources while balancing the budget.
"The president has promised to care for the environment, and as
long as Bill Clinton is in the White House, we feel that the line-item veto is a powerful and appropriate tool to do that," Faber said. "Obviously, if a Republican were elected president and he were urged to use the line-item veto to cut the Environmental Protection Agency or the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, we'd feel differently."
Stephen Moore, an economist with the conservative Cato Institute and an advocate of the veto, adds: "The key question is whether presidents will use the line-item veto to save money or, instead, to punish their political enemies."
Rep. David E. Skaggs, the Colorado Democrat who is one of the law's most vehement foes, maintains that it will significantly distort the balance of power in Washington.
"The threat of the line-item veto will give the president a powerful back-room tool with which to leverage the legislative process to his advantage, letting members of Congress know that if they'll accommodate his preferences and desires, he'll accommodate theirs," he said.
Sen. Robert C. Byrd, the West Virginia Democrat, was more blunt last year when arguing against passage of the bill. "We would turn an elected president," he warned his colleagues, "into a king."
Skaggs and Byrd have joined in a lawsuit against the line-item veto on the ground that it unconstitutionally shifts some of Congress' power over spending to the White House.
In the lawsuit, filed last week, four attorneys, including Lloyd N. Cutler, a former White House counsel for Clinton, maintain that the law violates Article I of the Constitution. That provision grants Congress the power to present bills to the president and requires him either to sign them, let them become law without his signature, or veto them.
Since the presidency of George Washington, it has been understood by chief executives that this provision meant they had to sign into law some appropriations they didn't like. They believed the Constitution forbade them to pick and choose among the various spending items in a single bill.
Although presidents from Ulysses S. Grant to Ronald Reagan asked for this power, Congress stubbornly refused to cede it. Until 1974, presidents had the authority not to spend all the money appropriated in the budget, a power rescinded by Congress that year.
Since then, Republicans in Congress have tended to favor a line-item veto, while Democrats opposed it. Partly this was because Republicans have generally placed more emphasis on restraining spending than did Democrats.
But in 1994, Republicans took control of Congress. Suddenly, the table was set for a line-item veto -- and Clinton, who enjoyed such power as governor of Arkansas, eagerly sought it.
Estimates of how much would be saved annually are small -- just $1.5 billion to $10 billion annually out of a $1.5 trillion budget. The law does not allow the president to trim entitlement spending -- such as for Medicaid, Medicare and Social Security -- which accounts for two-thirds of federal spending.
But proponents, noting that the federal debt has risen 10-fold in the past two decades to about $5 trillion, say that every bit helps.
"We had to do something," said James C. Miller III, a budget director in the Reagan administration. Noting that 43 governors now enjoy this authority, Miller added that studies of how it has been used show little evidence of executive power abuse.