The case for giving the President a line-item veto

PRESIDENT Reagan has repeatedly threatened budget showdowns at the OK Corral. But in recent years Congress has found a way to make the President shoot himself in the foot if he vetoes appropriations. On Oct. 17 Congress combined all 13 of the annual appropriations bills into a single, huge bill, dropped it on the White House doorstep, and rode out of town. Either the President could accept every item in this $576 billion monstrosity, or he could veto the entire bill and throw the government into chaos. It was a take-it-or-leave-it proposition, and Ronald Reagan took it.

Increasingly, Congress has undermined the President's authority to veto appropriations by sending him fewer and fewer but larger and larger bills. For fiscal year 1985, Congress passed four of the 13 annual appropriations bills. The rest were dumped into a $365 billion continuing resolution. The year 1986 saw an improvement, with Congress passing six bills and dumping the rest into a $368 billion ``CR.'' But for 1987, all 13 bills were combined into the largest spending measure in history.

Not only are bills larger and larger, generally they are later. The federal fiscal year begins on Oct. 1, by which date Congress is supposed to have provided the necessary funds. For 1985, Congress missed its deadline by 10 days; for 1986, by 79 days; and for 1987, by 16 days. In the interim, the government departments limped along on very short-term funding bills, unsure of what their ultimate appropriations would be and, therefore, unable to plan efficiently.

When the President finally receives long-overdue bills, he is loath to create any further delays and signs them, when he might have vetoed bills that were sent him on time. For 1987, the appropriations for the Department of Interior are $1.7 billion over what the President requested; for the Departments of Labor and of Health and Human Services, $10 billion over; Transportation, $3 billion over; Housing and Urban Development, $10 billion over.

As separate bills, any one or all might have been vetoed, but because they were combined into one massive bill 16 days after the start of the fiscal year, the President had no practical choice but to sign them.

Further, knowing a bill sent the President several weeks late is practically veto-proof, members of Congress cannot resist the temptation to pack the barrel with pork.

The 1987 megabill contained, for example, $68 million for site acquisition and planning for four federal office buildings - those favorite monuments of congressmen - in the districts of influential legislators. Three of the buildings are low on the General Services Administration priority list, and the fourth - for which $32 million was appropriated - was never asked for.

Appropriations bills inevitably contain a host of handouts, none of them requested by the President, such as grants to universities to build libraries and learning centers in privileged states. The '87 continuing resolution, for example, contained $55 million in defense research grants to 12 universities in the home states of influential legislators, in circumvention of the normal competitve bidding process. A list of items in the bill which either were not requested by the President or whose costs exceed the President's request would easily fill several newspaper pages.

President Reagan has announced that revamping the budget process will be one of his primary goals for the 100th Congress. The most practical tool is the line-item veto. In 1985, 59 senators from all across the political spectrum thought line-item veto ought to at least be considered and voted to end a filibuster against debating S43, a bill introduced by Sen. Mack Mattingly of Georgia. Under Senate rules, 60 votes are needed to end a filibuster, one more than could be mustered in 1985, and the bill never received the consideration it deserved.

Nonetheless, the votes appeared to show a majority of senators (47 Republicans and 12 Democrats) at least sympathetic to giving line-item veto a trial. Since the budget process has deteriorated further in the last year, line-item veto may pass in 1987 if the President goes all out for it.

In January, I will introduce a bill to begin a two-year trial of presidential line-item veto authority. It would require that each section or paragraph in every appropriations bill, however large or small, be enrolled as a separate bill for presentation to the president. While a line-item veto could be overridden just like any other presidential veto, by two-thirds vote of both Houses, I believe a vast majority of vetoes would be sustained.

Furthermore, as the governors in the 43 states with line-item veto can attest, its utility lies not exclusively in its actual exercise, but also simply in the executive's threat to use it. Restoring a president's option to veto appropriations bills would equalize the odds between the president and Congress and restore to the budget process a good deal of the discipline so lacking in recent years.

Gordon J. Humphrey (R) is a United States senator from New Hampshire.

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