The Veto Game

Nobody said the line-item veto wouldn't sting. Republican lawmakers who gave President Clinton that power are having to grit their teeth as he cuts military construction projects from their districts - $10 million here, $3 million there.

Skilled politician that he is, the president is carefully picking and choosing as he snips. The home states and districts of Senate majority leader Trent Lott and other powerful Republicans largely escaped the veto. Top Senate Democrat Tom Daschle wasn't so fortunate. His state, South Dakota, won't have a new $5.2 million Army National Guard support center after all - at least not right away.

The president's scissors may, however, have slipped a bit in the case of an Army Reserve site in Utah. New facilities were to be built to free up Army land for a housing development related to the Winter Olympics in 2002 - a connection the president apparently missed. That veto is likely to be undone.

In fact, much of what Mr. Clinton deleted from the $2.9 billion military construction budget this year will reappear in future years. Many of the projects are in the Pentagon's long-range plans. That means these are not necessarily pure "pork" larded on by Congress. The Pentagon, however, didn't ask for them this year. The lawmakers, ever anxious for a little economic fillip for the folks back home, simply couldn't wait.

The president's criteria, as he decided what to blue-pencil, revolved around immediate military need.

Just how significant, budgetwise, is Clinton's $287 million in cuts? Congress, after all, had added $800 million to what the Pentagon wanted for military construction this year. In a defense budget that hovers around $250 billion, this is puny stuff. But politically, as the president himself likes to say, the line-item veto signals that the rules of the game have changed. As lawmakers put together next year's Pentagon spending bills, they'll have to consider that what they add can easily be subtracted. Habits may be altered a bit. Obvious "pork" can be sliced off and held up to public ridicule.

The president, of course, has to carefully consider on whose toes he treads. He'll have to be on bargaining terms with legislators when he wants his programs passed.

We didn't favor the line-item veto, and still don't. The military construction cuts probably won't spark a constitutional challenge to the veto. But that possibility is ever imminent. The amount of law-shaping power shifted from Congress to the executive, in violation of the Constitution's distribution of powers, begs such a challenge.

But the new veto is with us for now. And, so far, Clinton has used it prudently.

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