In Congress, line-item remorse Veto: Last year, Congress gave President Clinton line-item veto authority. Now that he has used it a few times, many lawmakers fear they've made a big mistake.

Sun Journal

October 27, 1997|By Carl M. Cannon | Carl M. Cannon,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- President Clinton recently unwrapped his newest power tool, the line-item veto, and played around with it a bit, axing an Alaska dredging project here, an antiquated line of reconnaissance jets there.

It wasn't much, really, just a couple of billion out of a federal budget of more than $1.5 trillion, but the squeals from Congress could be heard in districts from here to Fairbanks.

"A raw exercise of power," complained Louisiana Republican Rep. Robert L. Livingston, "meant to threaten, intimidate or exert revenge."

"An arbitrary political decision to make the president look good," intoned Sen. Ted Stevens of Alaska, another Republican.

"Petty politics," sniffed House Speaker Newt Gingrich's spokeswoman.

And these are the friends of the line-item veto.

During the long debate over the measure, it was often said that every president since Ulysses S. Grant longed for the power of the line-item veto. What wasn't pointed out as often is that every Congress until the 104th thought it was a dumb idea, and probably unconstitutional besides.

Led by President Ronald Reagan, who had line-item authority while governor of California, Republicans began clamoring for the line-item veto in the 1980s. After 1994, with Republicans in control of both houses of Congress -- and with another former governor in the White House -- the pressure built. In 1996, the law was passed and signed. Today, Clinton can do what none of his predecessors could, zero out spending and tax provisions of legislation he doesn't like without having to veto the entire bill.

"This has very subtly, but very significantly changed the way Washington works in ways that are only beginning to be understood," says Stanley E. Collender, a federal budget analyst with the Burson-Marsteller consulting firm. To many Americans, that doesn't sound like such a bad idea. The problem is that members of Congress are beginning to worry that they traded one system of abuses for another.

Sen. Robert C. Byrd of West Virginia, a Democratic opponent of the veto, warned his colleagues that they would come to regret "this abomination, this gimmick, this illegitimate legislative end run around the Constitution."

Two weeks ago, Byrd reminded his colleagues that most of them voted for the line-item veto. "It is coming home to roost now," he added. Few voices were heard in disagreement. Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, who helped pass the bill, told Byrd, "I think there are probably more senators and House members that would agree with you this week than last week."

But not everyone agrees.

"The line-item veto is working out exactly as I hoped," says Stephen Moore, an economist with the conservative Cato Institute. "Republicans have been saying for 20 years that they wanted the line-item veto to get rid of pork-barrel spending, and it's kind of depressing to hear them whine about it now that it's actually being used."

Knowing the public wouldn't stand for a repeal of the law -- it remains quite popular with voters -- congressional leaders of both parties have been reduced to rooting for the Supreme Court to declare it unconstitutional. The court could rule by next summer on lawsuits that have challenged the law's constitutionality.

Such are the tensions underlying this legislation, which from its inception was Congress' way of admitting that it couldn't control its profligate spending.

Sure, an influential member of Congress can still lard up a military appropriation bill at the last minute -- with no hearings or debate -- by slipping in, say, $5.2 million for a National Guard "support center" in South Dakota. That's what Senate Democratic leader Tom Daschle did recently for his home state.

Or a House delegation can cook up a $1.9 million project to dredge a lake back home to create a marina basin for pleasure boats. That's what Lott and his Mississippi confederates did recently.

But now, the president can just take them out! And Clinton did; he zapped both projects, and dozens more, on his way to trimming $2 billion of what he considered fat from the federal budget.

"The old rules have, in fact, changed," Clinton said before one of his recent line-item vetoes.

But what are the new rules?

The key reality appears to be this: No longer can a member of Congress -- or high-paid lobbyists for special interests -- secure success by enticing a committee chairman to back a pet project. There is a new sheriff in town, the director of the White House Office of Management and Budget.

The White House routinely receives calls from members of Congress that would have been unthinkable a year ago. They ask if the budget office supports a pet project already in a spending bill. Or they try to get advance clearance for the next year.

"It has turned OMB into a third house of Congress," says Collender, whose firm recently held a well-attended symposium for lobbyists on the line-item veto.

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