President Clinton lined up solidly with Speaker Newt Gingrich yesterday in supporting a sharp increase in presidential power to eliminate juicy hunks of congressional pork.
Why would the Republican legislative leader want to give a Democratic president such a mighty weapon? One answer: the GOP senses it has a good chance to recapture the White House in next year's elections. Another: in modern times the Republicans have been preeminently the presidential party resisting a marked shift of the pendulum toward the legislative branch.
President Reagan first proposed a congressional amendment that would allow him to cut from appropriations bills dubious items inserted by legislators to please home folks or special interests. But because an amendment is cumbersome and time-consuming, Mr. Gingrich has urged the 104th Congress to pass a simple measure that would accomplish much the same purpose.
His "enhanced rescission" proposal, now endorsed by Mr. Clinton, would empower the president to veto even the smallest subsection of an appropriations bill. The veto would go into effect automatically unless blocked by an unlikely two-thirds vote in both the House and the Senate .
While the bill backed by Speaker Gingrich and President Clinton is expected to sweep through the House, it will encounter a certain filibuster from the dean of the Senate, Democrat Robert Byrd of West Virginia, who is always eager to fight White House threats to congressional prerogatives.
To overcome such opposition, Republican Sen. Pete Domenici and Democrat Sen. Jim Exon are sponsoring a milder version of the line-item veto. Called "expedited rescission," it would force Congress to vote such vetoes up or down on simple majority votes. This is a middle way between the two-thirds override requirement of Gingrich-Clinton and the present process whereby Congress can block a rescission merely through inaction.
While this newspaper opposes Mr. Gingrich's proposed Balanced Budget Amendment as a phony pretense at deficit reduction, we continue our record of support for the line-item veto that goes back to the Reagan era. The stronger version would be preferable, but if the milder Domenici-Exon proposal is the only one that can get through the Senate it would be quite acceptable.
Critics complain that any version of the line-item veto applies only to year-by-year "discretionary" spending rather than automatic entitlement programs that are breaking the budget. They also worry that presidents would use enhanced appropriation powers to strong-arm individual legislators or substitute their own spending preferences.
While these objections have merit, they ignore the need to restore public confidence in the Congress by eliminating egregious examples of porcine spending that besmirch the institution. So we applaud Mr. Clinton and Mr. Gingrich in this joint endeavor. May it succeed.