How Line-Item Veto Could Put Congress On Pork Chop Diet


CONSIDER this scenario: You're a freshman member of Congress, and after months of wheedling you've finally got your own bit of pork in a spending bill. It's not much, really -- only $500,000 to help found a Clog Dance Hall of Fame -- but it could revitalize a downtown in your district. Besides, the Clog Club back home (motto: ''Stomp Till Suppertime'') is a big part of your political base.

Then disaster strikes. ''The White House called,'' says your legislative director. ''Clinton says he'll kill the Clog Hall with his new line-item veto unless we support an increase in the minimum wage, something you've bitterly opposed. What do we do now?''

This little bit of political theater couldn't yet happen. Presidents don't have the power to strike individual items from legislation passed by Congress. But they will -- if the line-item veto bill derived from the GOP's ''Contract With America'' is voted into law. The House is likely to pass line-item veto legislation today. The date is symbolic -- it is Ronald Reagan's birthday. When president, Mr. Reagan called often for line-item veto power.

The line-item veto is often billed as a way to help rid the US budget of unnecessary spending. But whatever its merits as a tool of prudence, the veto's more profound effect might be to boost the leverage the White House can exert on members of Congress. Given the choice above, what lawmaker would not opt to save clog funds by accepting minimum wage?

''The line-item veto will not so much allow the president to get rid of pork as allow him a wonderful way to build support on issues he cares about,'' says Gary Jacobson, a professor of political science at the University of California at San Diego.

This irony is not entirely lost on House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R) of Georgia and his GOP supporters. In continuing to press the line-item veto, which was a main feature of their ''Contract With America,'' they are not just moving to cede clout to the White House. They're also moving to cede clout to a Democrat.

''It does show our sincerity, I think, that we are prepared to deal with giving President Clinton increased power,'' said Speaker Gingrich on Friday.

Technically, this legislation would allow the US chief executive to make what it calls ''recisions'' -- deletions or reductions in individual spending programs -- without rejecting entire appropriations bills. It would also allow the president to strike out tax breaks that benefit 100 or fewer people or companies.

Under the proposed law, Congress could override these recisions, but only with a two-thirds vote. So far, the GOP has beaten back Democratic attempts to water down the line-item veto by changing the override standard to a simple majority.

LINE-ITEM vetoes are already a common feature in many states. To conservatives, the point of a federal equivalent would be reduction of what they judge pork-barrel spending. Bridges, dams, highway funds, and even outmoded military bases could be vulnerable to a tight-fisted president's veto pen. According to an estimate by the libertarian-oriented Cato Institute, a line-item veto might save the US $5 billion to $10 billion a year.

While such an effort may be laudable, given the nature of the nation's fiscal problems, it is largely irrelevant to budget balancing, point out a number of experts. Too much of the federal budget consists of Social Security, Medicare, interest payments, and other funds that would be largely immune from recisions.

The most important effect of line-item veto legislation thus might be the shift it would cause in Washington's balance of forces. It is no accident that presidents as far apart politically as Mr. Reagan and Mr. Clinton himself have supported line-item veto bills.

''It certainly gives presidents a lot more power,'' says George Edwards, director of Texas A&M's Center for Presidential Studies. ''Of course, it gives them a lot more headaches, too.''

That's because the White House would suddenly be held more responsible for everything in spending bills. Congress could pass all the questionable ''pork'' projects it wanted -- and then lay the blame for any that aren't vetoed on the White House.

This is likely one reason why Republicans aren't too worried about turning line-item power over to a Democratic White House.

Another involves a simple political calculation. ''They believe they're going to get the presidency back,'' points out Professor Edwards.

The House is expected to pass the measure, but the Senate is another matter.

Fiercely protective of their prerogatives, many senators, regardless of party, resist anything that smacks of a dilution of their power. Among Senate opponents are Appropriations Committee chairman Mark Hatfield (R) of Oregon and Robert Byrd (D) of West Virginia, ranking minority member on the panel.

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