AS part of his Congress-bashing crusade for reelection, President George Bush says the line-item veto is a tool he needs to be a more effective leader. The president already possesses a kind of selective veto power, however. Just ask those of us concerned with world population and family planning. President Bush has vetoed 31 bills over the past three and a half years, and Congress has yet to override one of them. Neither the House of Representatives nor the Senate has been able to muster the two-thirds majority needed to reverse a Bush veto.
But if the remainder of a vetoed bill is important enough to members of Congress, they merely delete the parts that offend the chief executive and send it back to the White House for his signature. By playing this game of legislative roulette - when he knows the wheel is rigged in his favor - the president still manages to extract results tantamount to the line-item veto.
Back in 1989 Bush vetoed the foreign-aid appropriations bill because he was unhappy with its inclusion of $15 million for the United Nations' voluntary population and family-planning efforts.
This was the same George Bush who once said: "How well we and the rest of the world can make the policies and programs of the UN responsive to the needs of the people will be the test of the success in the population field. Success in the population field, under UN leadership, may, in turn, determine whether we can resolve successfully the other great questions of peace, prosperity, and individual rights that face the world."
Moreover, the 1989 appropriations bill Bush vetoed contained elements he felt were instrumental to the conduct of United States foreign policy. Congress, agreeing with at least that part of the president's premise, struck out the contribution to the UN Population Fund (UNPFA) and the president signed the revised bill into law.
Fast forward to 1992. Before Congress went into summer recess this year, the House of Representatives approved and sent to the Senate a $14 billion foreign-aid appropriations package. The Senate will most likely enact the measure and sent it to the White House, where Bush is expected to exercise yet another veto because it contains $20 million for UNFPA to spend on contraceptives.
The president may haul out the same objections he used three years ago, predicated on the fact that UNFPA contributes to China's allegedly coercive national family-planning program. UNFPA has never been accused of supporting any of the allegedly coercive elements of the Chinese program. To the contrary, the centerpiece of the UN agency's involvement is the production of safer and more efficient contraceptives - a situation that developed following serious problems with the Chinese-produced IUDs.
But Bush has found that it fits his agenda better to bash UNFPA rather than China. In his 1989 veto message, the president neglected to mention that China was the country with the coercive family-planning policy that UNFPA supports. That might have made it difficult to explain why his administration had approved a nuclear-technology transfer to China. And if the president continues to insist that China is guilty of such onerous human rights violations as forced abortion, why does he also feel that countr y is entitled to most-favored-nation trade status?
THE 1993 foreign-aid appropriations bill is loaded with ironclad assurances precluding the use of UNFPA contraceptive funds in China. One is a guarantee that the entire $20 million contribution to UNFPA must be returned to the US government if there is any increase in the agency's current five-year program with China. Another stipulation is that the funds cannot be used for any program disapproved by the US ambassador to the UN.
Not a single donor to UNFPA has followed the US example by refusing to contribute to the organization. The US stopped funding UNFPA some six years ago and since then other donors - including Canada, the United Kingdom, Germany, Japan, and the Scandinavian countries - not only continue to support UNFPA but have increased their contributions to the fund.
If the president vetoes the foreign-aid appropriation this year because of the contraceptive grant to UNFPA, Congress could respond in a different manner. Bruised and battered by White House election-year rhetoric, Congress still would not have the votes to override. But it could summon the gumption to refuse to go along with the demand to excise UNFPA from the bill.
The president would no doubt accuse the legislative branch of "gridlocking" a bill that is vital to US interests abroad, including assistance for former Soviet states in Eastern Europe and loan guarantees to Israel. But no amount of Congress-bashing would alter the fact that the ball would be in the president's court: The decision on 1993 foreign-aid appropriations would rest squarely with him.