WASHINGTON — STRANGE reversal is under way in Washington.
Just over 20 years ago, in the wake of Vietnam and Watergate, Congress cut the so-called ``imperial presidency'' of Richard Nixon down to size. In matters from declaring war to withholding federal spending, Congress narrowed the president's scope of action.
Now, ironically, the presidency is becoming again a little more imperial. Many of the big and small steps the Republican Congress is taking in the name of leaner, cheaper federal government are tipping the balance of power back to the president.
The irony is that these days President Clinton is politically weak, while the opposition Congress is supercharged with an activist agenda. Political power is heavily lodged on Capitol Hill. Nor do House Speaker Newt Gingrich and company have any desire to strengthen Mr. Clinton's hand. Yet the House voted this week to give the president the line-item veto.
This shifts much of the project-by-project bargaining power over the federal budget out of the hands of committee chairmen and congressional leaders and into the White House.
And this is only the most straightforward handing over of power on the House Republican agenda. When the representatives voted to limit the time they could chair committees or serve in leadership posts, they potentially weakened the power of those positions.
If they succeed as well in passing 12-year term limits for all members of Congress, then Capitol Hill will be a more level place without old barons with years of power to contend with.
Even congressional staff cuts and application of labor laws to Capitol Hill itself could potentially reduce the capacity of Congress to monitor and compete with the executive branch.
Congress `sells' power
``It's like Congress is having a fire sale on its constitutional power,'' says Bruce Oppenheimer, a Vanderbilt University political scientist.
The larger motive of Republicans in Congress is to send power out of Washington altogether, to lower federal taxes and federal spending and otherwise cut the reach of the federal government.
``What you see here is a healthy effort to say more of American life ought to be in the hands of state and local governments,'' says John Walters, president of the New Citizenship Project and a Republican strategist.
The upshot of the Republican agenda, says Mr. Walters, will be a weaker Congress and a weaker presidency. Especially if the proposed balanced-budget amendment to the Constitution is passed and ratified, he explains, ``there just is no money for a lot of fooling around.''
Meanwhile, the House is passing a slew of other measures to make states less beholden to federal rules and federal money. The Senate is moving more tentatively, but in the same general direction.
The public holds both Congress and the president in such low esteem these days that moving power out of Washington out to the state and local level has strong popular support, notes presidential historian Michael Besschloss.
But while Congress clips the wings of federal power, it cuts more of its own feathers than the president's.
The line-item veto is intended as a cutting tool to carve out government waste. Republicans support for the measure solidified during the Reagan years as they watched in frustration as Democratic barons packaged votes for federal budgets by wrapping in pet projects and programs to woo reluctant members. The president would have to sign or veto the whole package.
Now that the GOP runs Congress and a Democrat sits in the White House, the Republicans are holding to their principle - that giving presidents the power to single out budget items for veto will produce a leaner, more pork-free budget.
Some skeptics argue that the need to buy votes with money for parochial projects will remain - they will simply be packaged in the White House instead of in Capitol Hill committee rooms. President Clinton certainly packed a lot of horsetraded spending items into the NAFTA bill, for example, in winning close-fought passage.
But whether it successfully cuts pork or not, the line-item veto puts more bargaining power in the president's hands. ``Any member of Congress that the president is trying to lobby will be aware of that,'' says Dr. Oppenheimer.
Power to bargain changes
``After a while, he won't even have to mention it. The whole bargaining relationship is different.''
Likewise, under term limits, the executive branch does not have to concern itself as much with powerful members of Congress who can more often be waited out, says Oppenheimer. White House negotiators ``can be tougher in bargaining situations. They don't have to develop a sense of comity with you.''
Another irony, he notes: The conservative Congress is weakening what has historically been the more conservative branch of government. For most of American history, presidents have been most likely to use government power to push for change.