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.
The man who heads that office is the low-key Franklin D. Raines, and so far, no one has publicly questioned his motives. But the potential abuses implied by this setup are obvious.
First, it gives the president's party enormous power to promote projects it likes -- even if it doesn't control Capitol Hill. Second, it grants the president tremendous leverage to punish -- or reward -- individual members of Congress.
Third, in a city in which the actions of large campaign givers are under intense scrutiny, the prospect that large donors may get favors seems to have increased exponentially.
"It's one more pressure point where money can exert influence," said Charles Lewis, head of the Center for Public Integrity, a group that seeks to minimize the impact of money in politics.
To Republican congressional leaders, Clinton doesn't appear to have systematically used the line-item veto for political advantage. Sen. John McCain, an Arizona Republican, complains that the administration doesn't seem to have any consistent criteria for its cuts, and that there is no rhyme or reason to the decision to cut some pork while leaving other things alone.
In one example that attracted attention in California, the president line-item vetoed a $4 million appropriation for research into an advanced form of breast-cancer radiation treatment. The money was to have been spent at Loma Linda University Medical Center in Southern California. The administration supports the research -- but not there.
The local congressman, Republican Rep. Jerry Lewis, was not pleased.
"Next week, he's going to come to people like me and say: 'Help me with fast track,' " Lewis said, referring to a major Clinton trade bill. "This causes me to say: 'Wait a minute, friend.' "
But neutral budget experts say the president holds almost all the cards.
"Jerry Lewis is going to have another project he wants next year," says Collender. "Clinton can line-item veto that, too, if he wants. The ultimate power now rests with the president."
Pub Date: 10/27/97