HOUSE AND SENATE REPUBLICANS have finally agreed on a formula for a line-item veto that would give presidents unprecedented power to reduce government spending and special tax breaks. Now it's up to President Clinton to overcome Democratic objections to a proposal he has long favored.
The factors ending the year-long intra-party stalemate were more political than fiscal. GOP presidential nominee-in-waiting Bob Dole wanted the deal done. And House Republicans were desperate to salvage something from their discredited "Contract with America."
Although a line-item veto has long been a desirable objective, a word of caution: Procedural changes of this kind are of limited value if Washington lacks genuine zeal for budget-cutting. The Gramm-Rudman formula to hold down spending did not stop deficits from exploding in the Reagan-Bush Eighties. The first Republican-controlled Congress in 40 years has failed in various legislative ploys to get a balanced-budget on the law books.
As chastened Republicans make concessions to Democratic spending demands, they are adding some deplorable revenue losers of their own. Example: a push to increase the level of earnings permitted Social Security recipients without tax penalty while doing nothing to means-test such retirement benefits. This could add $7 billion to the deficit over seven years. Another example: House Speaker Newt Gingrich would like to sell off national assets to pay for some on-going operations. That's like holding a garage sale to pay April's rent with nary a provision for May unto eternity.
Now that Senator Dole has supplanted Mr. Gingrich as the supreme commander of GOP legislative strategy, the Washington gridlock may be easing. House Republicans, triumphant a year ago, no longer threaten to shut down the government or risk default on the national debt. They were clobbered in opinion polls. Likewise, Mr. Clinton could be knocked off his perch if he vetoes too many bills bearing the imprint of a Dole search for consensus.
Significantly, Mr. Dole broke the line-item deadlock by choosing the House approach over that favored by his own Senate. No longer would presidents be confronted by huge spending bills on a take it or leave it basis. They could veto parts they don't like, plus tax breaks affecting 100 persons or less. A two-thirds vote in both chambers would be required to override. Opponents contend this is an unconstitutional giveaway by Congress of its constitutional powers. That, however, is a question the courts can't decide unless Congress and the White House act first.
Pub Date: 3/18/96