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Mr. Bush's Fitful Passions


Washington.-- Recently George Bush went wandering again in the tangled underbrush of his syntax: "I'm all for Lawrence Welk. Lawrence Welk is a wonderful man. He used to be or was, or whatever he is now, bless him. But you don't need $700,000 for a Lawrence Welk museum when we've got tough times and people in New Hampshire are hurting."

Mr. Welk, bless him, is alive - much more so than Mr. Bush's feeble campaign for a line-item veto. If presidents had such a veto, Mr. Bush could veto pork projects like the Welk museum in North Dakota - which museum, by the way, is no proper project for Congress even when New Hampshire is in clover.

Mr. Bush periodically says he longs for a line-item veto - the power to veto parts of bills rather than reject entire bills. He has even said he thinks he already has the constitutionally implied power such a veto. But he neither presses Congress to authorize such a veto nor asserts the implied power.

Now come Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Dan Coats, R-Ind., plucking from the dust an idea discarded there by Bush after he milked it for political rhetoric and then lost interest. Next week the senators will introduce a measure to give presidents line-item veto power.

The word "veto" is not in the Constitution. The power is in the "presentment" clause (Art. I, Sec. 7, Clause 2) that says "every bill" passed by both houses of Congress must be presented to the president. "If he approve, he shall sign it"; if not, he shall return it and Congress can try to override his rejection by a two-thirds vote in both houses.

But what is a "bill"? The Constitution's next clause says "every order, resolution or vote" to which the House and Senate must concur (other than for adjournment) must be presented to the president. Rep. Tom Campbell, R-Calif., a former Stanford Law professor, says that items Congress has separately debated and voted, often after separate hearings in different committees, the president should also be able to consider separately. That would fulfill the framers' intentions for the veto's role in the system of checks and balances.

Congress defeats the framers' intentions by bundling disparate measures into huge omnibus bills, presenting presidents with all-or- nothing choices. A meaningful veto power is lost when the cost of its exercise is governmental chaos.

People wonder why, if presidents always had the implied line-item veto, none exercised it. The answer is that presidents from Washington through Nixon did, by impounding appropriated funds. Congress, exploiting post-Watergate antagonism toward the presidency, virtually ended impoundment in 1974.

True, Washington said, "From the nature of the Constitution, I must approve all the parts of a bill, or reject it, in toto." But in Washington's day, Congress passed extremely general, lump-sum appropriations bills, expecting presidents to exercise vast discretion about spending. The First Congress' appropriation bill in 1787 could be typed on a single, double-spaced page. But 199 years later, President Reagan in a State of the Union address hoisted a 43-pound, 3,296-page omnibus bill, a graphic argument for the line-item veto.

Forty-three governors have the line-item veto. It would be no panacea for federal deficits because so much of the budget is obligatory interest and entitlement spending. But thousands of ripe targets for line-item vetoes involve billions of dollars. Congress could still override any item veto, but it would not be comfortable mustering two-thirds majorities, item by item, for pieces of parochial pork.

Last May, four senators and 44 representatives urged Bush to assert the implied power of a line-item veto. A Bush aide responded limply that because constitutional scholars differed about this power, "you've got to make sure you've got a good test case." If after 1,126 days he still can't find one, he isn't seriously looking. Besides, once a president asserts the power, making a case against it will be Congress' problem, perhaps in the Supreme Court.

If a president unilaterally exercised a line-item veto, the court might side with him. If it sided with Congress, he would still win by having focused attention on Congress' defense of indefensible practices. Or the court might declare this a "political question" that the legislative and executive branches must fight out. Public opinion would then be decisive, and a serious president would win. So what is needed is a serious president, one who means what the current one says.

George F. Will is a syndicated columnist.

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