What has Ronald Reagan in common with Jefferson Davis? They both favored the line-item veto. It would allow the President to pick and choose what he would veto in legislation sent him by Congress. Jefferson Davis had the power; Ronald Reagan says it's a good idea. So have other US presidents.
In his State of the Union message last Wednesday, the President revived the controversy that has burned brightly at times. He said he wanted ''structural reforms'' in the American government to help control the deficit.
''Some 43 of our 50 states grant their governors the right to veto individual items in appropriations bills without having to veto the entire bill,'' he said. ''California is one of those 43 states. As governor, I found this 'line-item veto' was a powerful tool against wasteful or extravagant spending. It works in 43 states - let's put it to work in Washington, D.C., for all the people.
''It would be most effective if done by constitutional amendment,'' Mr. Reagan added.
Giving the President line-item veto would alter power values in Washington. Strengthening the chief executive's control might reduce stagnation and deadlock in government; at the same time, it would reduce congressional authority. Instead of having to veto an entire bill to get it stopped, a president could knock out individual features line by line. In United States history this issue has been raised a number of times:
* Andrew Jackson in a brush with Congress in 1830 signed a bill and simultaneously sent a message to Congress interpreted as limiting its range. The House had recessed but subsequently implied that Jackson had sought a line-item veto.
* President John Tyler in 1842 did much the same thing as Jackson, but this time a House committee issued a counterreport of protest charging the action was ''a defacement of the public records and archives.''
* The Confederate States adopted, Feb. 8, 1861, a line-item veto provision. Following the Civil War several states incorporated the feature in their constitutions.
* President Ulysses S. Grant urged Congress in 1878 to amend the Constitution to authorize a president ''to approve of so much of any measure passing the two houses of Congress as his judgment may dictate, without approving the whole.''
* In 1879 President Rutherford B. Hayes, and in 1882 President Chester A. Arthur, renewed the request.
* In 1883 the proposal was put to a House vote but failed to get the necessary two-thirds constitutional majority required.
* In 1884 the Senate Judiciary Committee approved the idea, but Congress did not act.
* In 1913 the House held committee hearings; nothing was done.
* Franklin Roosevelt proposed a variation of the plan in 1938, which failed in the Senate.
* In 1949 the Hoover Commission implicitly called for the item veto affecting certain appropriations.
* President Nixon's impounded funds voted by Congress (in effect vetoing them).
* Now President Reagan renews the proposal.
Under the system of divided powers, the US for almost 200 years has successfully operated a unique division of power in Washington between executive , legislature, and judiciary. More and more questions have risen recently because of greater complexity, acceleration, and awesomeness of problems.
The Washington mood is hopeful, but uncertain because of the prospect of a $ 200 billion annual deficit. New proposals are being made. In effect President Reagan acknowledges this in coming back to the item veto.
Other constitutional proposals are also being discussed. One is a call for a constitutional convention to require Congress to balance the budget. The Constitution allows the states to call such a convention, but the right has never been implemented. Sponsors are just two states short of two-thirds of the legislatures needed to call the convention. Backers argue that they can confine the convention, if summoned, to the single subject of the balanced budget. Others are concerned that the untried convention would be able to revise America's entire system of government.
There is little agitation today for Reagan's proposed line-item veto. On the other hand, supporters of the no-federal-deficit proposal have been active for years. They have made their approach through the Article 5 route. This says in part:
''The Congress, whenever two-thirds of both houses shall deem it necessary, shall propose amendments to this Constitution, or, on the application of the legislatures of two-thirds of the several States, shall call a convention of proposing amendments. . . .''