WASHINGTON — The rise of the line-item veto may soon effect a profound change in the balance of power between the Oval Office and the legislative chambers of Capitol Hill.
Presidents of both parties have long sought to wield such a budget-paring knife. Now Democrat Bill Clinton will be the first to grasp it: A line-item veto law goes into effect Jan. 1, following its passage by the GOP-led Congress last year.
Republican lawmakers are watching closely to see how Clinton intends to use his new tool. In fact, some party leaders are already warning Clinton that they believe he's interpreting line-item veto power too broadly.
Last week, a group of top congressional Republicans fired off a letter to the White House. The missive complained that administration officials have said the president would have used a line-item veto to kill everything from national speed limit legislation to parts of the welfare-reform bill.
Such statements "indicate an apparent lack of clear understanding about the reach and proper application of the line item veto authority," said the letter, which was signed by House Rules Committee chairman Gerald Solomon (R) of New York and Senate Budget Committee head Pete Domenici (R) of New Mexico, among others.
Instead, line-item veto authority is "narrowly proscribed" to bits of discretionary spending, and tax breaks that benefit only a few people or corporations, said the letter.
In other words, it's a scalpel, not a broadax.
The advent of the line-item veto comes at a time of ferment in the budget process. In a few weeks, the administration will submit its broad budget outline, and the annual White House-Congress fiscal wrangle will begin. Both sides say they want to balance the budget in seven years. Deficit estimates on both sides are getting closer. Is this the year the national budget process finally resembles smooth-running machinery, instead of a train wreck?
Maybe. But "Congress, White House in Budget Clash" is an evergreen news story. And the line-item veto, for one thing, could exacerbate tensions between the executive and legislative branches of government, rather than ease them.
That's because of the way it works. 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.
A president will now be able to threaten elimination of projects favored by individual members of Congress unless the member in question supports the White House on another issue. One can already hear the phone call from the Oval Office: "I'll let you keep that dam, Senator, if you support me on the increase in the minimum wage."
Scrubbing the federal budget of projects that rate the label "pork" is surely a laudable goal. It could save real money, too. The libertarian-oriented Cato Institute judges that a line-item veto might save the US $5 billion to $10 billion a year.
But such cuts are only of marginal use in the march towards a balanced budget, experts point out. Too much of US spending consists of Social Security, Medicare, interest payments on the federal debt, and other funds that would be largely immune from the reach of the new line-item veto law.
In fact, University of Pittsburgh School of Law dean Peter Shane, among others, judges that a line-item veto might actually lead to an increase in congressional fiscal irresponsibility.
Will the president wield the knife?
Presidents won't use the line-item knife too much, argues Shane, because it would cause too much unrest on Capitol Hill. The experience of the 43 states that have their own line-item veto laws tends to bear this out. Governors don't use the tool very often: Bill Clinton, for instance, used it nine times during the 10 years he was governor of Arkansas. Yet lawmakers, in a way, might feel freed from previous fiscal inhibitions. They may load appropriations bills up with "pork," believing it's up to the White House to strike out undeserving items.
So far the line-item veto legislation (which, technically speaking, allows "enhanced rescission authority") has survived legal challenges from a federal employees' union. The union is worried that the new tool will make it too easy to cut bureaucratic pay.
More court challenges likely lie ahead, however, as a number of legal experts think the law may be unconstitutional. Alan Morrison of the Public Citizen Litigation Group, among others, believes that the new law means Congress has abdicated its constitutional right to control the nation's purse strings.
Some group may soon file a suit on behalf of newly elected members of Congress, arguing that these freshmen had their powers usurped by a law they didn't vote on.