Vetoing obstinacy

THIS is a time of relative equilibrium in Washington politics -- a balance of forces that the American public is in no hurry to disturb by transferring budgetary power to the White House in the form of a line-item veto. The equilibrium is evident in several ways. Republicans have drawn even with Democrats in party identification among voters; they have achieved ``parity,'' looking ahead to next year's elections. Institutionally, congressional control remains divided between the parties, and there is as yet no reason to think this will change with the next national balloting. After five years of Reagan administration leadership and the evolution of budgetary, military, and foreign-policy issues over that period, everyon e knows where everyone stands. Hotter issues like South African repression, where events are pressing the administration to change its supportive position of the South African government, are not yet general American public controversies.

Public confidence in governmental institutions like the Supreme Court, Congress, the public schools -- all topics of controversy as the 1980s began -- has climbed significantly. The proportion of Americans who declare considerable confidence in the United States to deal wisely with world problems has risen from 53 percent in 1980 to 68 percent in 1985, according to Gallup surveys for Newsweek. The American economy's steady two-year climb out of its last recession has built a base of general optimism abo ut the quality of life over the next five years, specifically in public expectations on inflation and employment; this sense of being on a workable economic track, as much as anything else, may explain Americans' lack of desire to tinker with government budget authority now, even though majorities of Americans have said for four decades that they approve a line-item veto.

But there are other reasons to approve the Senate's burial of the line-item veto proposal. The measure would have given the President the authority to delete parts of the budget he does not like, rather than vetoing the entire budget or accepting it whole. As a practical matter, the broad veto is already effective at eliminating programs or items a president may not want. A budget is a barter process. This implies swaps. The American political system was designed to check and balance -- to keep one bran ch of government from running away with all the marbles. Americans may want strong executive leadership, but only in the direction they want to be led.

As political scientist Austin Ranney puts it, there are four conditions needed for Congress to approve a line-item veto for the president: (1) a public perception of a major crisis in the governmental system, (2) a clear impression that Congress is at fault, (3) a conviction that only a stronger president could deal with the crisis, and (4) a willingness in Congress to give up power. Not one of these exists.

There is a standoff on the budget. It is a serious matter but not one that requires a change in the system. If reducing the budget deficit were a primary goal of the administration, Mr. Reagan has his own options. He could raise taxes. He could agree to a one-year delay in the inflation increase for defense. He knows this and so does Congress. The fact is, the White House is not all that stricken with the size of the budget deficit; it has found it useful for leverage to attack spending not of its

liking. The Democratic House, knowing this, is holding out for an inflation increase for social security.

If there is a fault in this standoff, it is in sheer stubbornness, not an institutional flaw.

That Sen. Edward Kennedy would endorse the line-item veto is one of the more amusing aspects of the recent debate. It was another gesture by the new ``small government'' Ted Kennedy we have seen in recent months. For someone getting ready to run again for the presidency, burdened with a big spender label, it cannot hurt to assert the need for a strong, economizing chief executive. It was in line with Kennedy's recent gift of older brother Jack's presidential memorabilia to Ronald Reagan; and why not suc h an exchange of symbols of youth and maturity, when Mr. Reagan himself has so frequently invoked President Kennedy's words and actions?

A word of caution: When the public perceives, as it soon should, that simple unwillingness to resolve differences on spending is allowing the deficit issue to drift, both Capitol Hill and the Oval Office may be held at fault. If only there were a line-item veto for obstinacy!

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