Line-item veto gathers momentum


WASHINGTON -- Every year, Congress passes spending bills, and every year the president faces the same dilemma. It started with George Washington and it continues with Bill Clinton:

This bill has some good things -- essential spending that will keep the government operating, the president figures. But it also has fat in it, pork-barrel projects. Does the country need a World War II-era Mohair wool subsidy -- 50 years after World War II? Is it necessary to move the FBI fingerprint lab to Appalachia, just because the Appropriations Committee chairman is from West Virginia?

Do I veto the whole thing? Or sign it and waste taxpayers' money?

That's apparently how the founders set it up. But for 120 years or so, presidents have had another idea, one that has made its way into the Republicans' "Contract with America" -- and is now being pushed hard by Republicans in Congress.

It's called the "line-item veto," and it would let presidents delete individ- ual expenditures they didn't like.

Ulysses S. Grant was the first president to ask for the line-item veto. He has been joined by Franklin Roosevelt, Dwight Eisenhower, Ronald Reagan -- and Bill Clinton.

Until now, Congress was not eager to give up its constitutionally established spending authority. But two factors have changed.

First, Congress is controlled by Republicans, who have pushed the line-item veto for 10 years. Last fall, they put it in their 10-point "contract," which helped them take over both houses of Congress on Nov. 8.

The second factor is the heightened awareness among voters about what the nation's huge national debt means to them. Just servicing the $4.8 trillion debt -- and it grows each year -- costs taxpayers as much as all Pentagon spending.

Envision a baby born in 1995 into a family with an average income. Unless drastic changes are made in deficit spending, by the time he or she reaches 18 -- voting age -- the child's family will have paid $103,000 in taxes just to pay the interest on the national debt.

The desire of presidents to delete portions of Congress' handiwork is an issue as old as the Republic.

In 1807, Thomas Jefferson refused to spend $50,000 appropriated for warships. The practice of simply not spending appropriated funds is called "impoundment" and was used sporadically by presidents.

(That practice ended in 1974, when a Democratic Congress retaliated against Richard Nixon by outlawing impoundment after Mr. Nixon had used the device as a virtual line-item veto on domestic spending.)

Forty-three governors have this power. Maryland's is not one of them, but the state is required to have a balanced budget, and the legislature cannot add spending to the governor's budget unless it also adds offsetting revenue increases.

President Reagan called in his 1985 State of the Union address for a balanced budget amendment and a line-item veto. But Democrats feared what Mr. Reagan might do with this authority -- he had already pledged to eliminate the subsidy for Amtrak, for instance -- and were leery about granting that power to the executive branch.

"We would turn an elected president into a king," argued Democratic Sen. Robert C. Byrd of West Virginia.

Eleven years later, Republicans now in charge of Congress say they don't mind that the first president to exercise it would be a Democrat.

"Obviously, if President Clinton has a line-item veto, he's going to line-item out some programs I support -- there's no doubt about it -- we're in different parties and different philosophies," said Sen. John McCain, an Arizona Republican. "But if you agree that we have to balance the budget and control this obscene pork-barrel spending, the president needs the line-item veto."

Last week, on a bipartisan vote of 294-134, the House approved a strong version of the line-item veto, in which the president could sign an appropriations bill while notifying Congress of spending items in it he wishes to rescind. It would take a two-thirds vote of Congress to override these presidential rescissions.

The issue now goes to the Senate, where the going promises to be tougher. Although he no longer chairs the Senate Appropriations Committee, Senator Byrd is still opposed to a line-item veto and still possessed of a knack for shaping the debate.

That debate will center on two simple-sounding questions:

* Is the line-item veto the best way for budget process to operate?

* Is it constitutional?

The first is easier. Since Mr. Reagan called for a line-item veto, politicians in Washington have added $3 trillion to the national debt. A 1992 General Accounting Office study showed that from 1984 to 1989, $71 billion in spending could have been saved by the line-item veto.

Stephen Moore, an independent budget analyst, estimates that even with the recent trims overseen by Vice President Al Gore, the line-item veto would still save $5 billion to $10 billion a year.

The tougher hurdle may be the constitutionality. The Supreme Court has been reluctant to let Congress hand off to the executive branch authority vested in it by the nation's founders. In recent years, some scholars, looking for a way around this, have argued that the president may already have an inherent power to veto part of a spending bill.

This contention rests on the theory that the modern practice of loading up bills with unrelated issues and spending would have been odious to the Founders.

But there is evidence that appropriations bills always contained money for unrelated expenses. In a 1790 appropriation, for instance, Congress designated money for the Department of War, for an interpreter and for the building of a lighthouse on Cape Henry, Va.

In a letter to a friend, Washington explained why he signed bills containing provisions he didn't like.

"From the nature of the Constitution," he wrote, "I must approve all the parts of a bill, or reject it in toto."

In 1988, Charles J. Cooper, Mr. Reagan's assistant attorney general, concluded that nothing in the minutes of the Constitutional Convention, the Federalist Papers, the British tradition of government or even the practices of the Colonial governors suggests that presidents were to have the line-item veto authority.

Mr. Cooper's research also noted that early in this century, Chief Justice William Howard Taft agreed that the president "has no power to veto parts of the bill and allow the rest to become law."

The upshot is that the only way the line-item veto is assured of passing muster with the courts is if it is an amendment to the Constitution. Going this route, however, would generate increased opposition.

"Empowering the president to veto appropriations bills line by line would profoundly alter the Constitution's balance of power," says one opponent, Laurence H. Tribe, a liberal constitutional scholar at Harvard Law School.

Meanwhile, a supporter of the line-item veto, Mr. Moore of the Cato Institute, conducted a study that has his fellow conservatives buzzing.

After comparing the length of service of members of Congress with their voting records on appropriations bills, Mr. Moore found that the longer people serve in Congress, the more readily they embrace deficit spending.

Perhaps the long-term solution to deficit spending is another element of the "Contract with America."

Term limits.

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