THE alacrity with which President Clinton has embraced the idea of a line-item veto ought to make the Republicans in Congress pushing the proposal think twice.
A line-item veto would mean a massive shift of power from Congress to the president. Mr. Clinton has obviously figured this out. But have the Republicans? And if so, why do they keep pushing the matter?
In its pure form, the line-item veto would require amendment of the Constitution. It would give the president power to veto individual items in appropriations bills. The president has to sign or veto the whole bill; he cannot pick and choose among individual items. Congress then votes on whether to override the veto, with a two-thirds vote required.
With line-item veto authority, the president could veto separately as many items of an appropriation bill as he chooses. Congress would then vote separately on overriding each item vetoed.
The argument is that the line-item veto would give the president a weapon to combat wasteful pork-barrel projects coming from Capitol Hill. Many, perhaps most, appropriation bills have such projects tucked away somewhere - money to dredge a small river; to build a highway in some obscure congressional district; to establish a research laboratory in somebody's favorite university; even, to the horror of Republicans, money in this year's crime bill to subsidize midnight basketball.
Few of these projects could withstand rigorous cost-benefit analysis. Jimmy Carter mounted a valiant crusade against western water projects and went down to ignominious defeat. Ronald Reagan started a campaign for the line-item veto as a way to thwart congressional spendthrifts. George Bush continued the argument. Now Clinton has joined the presidential parade.
THE argument is made, irrelevantly, that many governors have this power and therefore the president should have it, too. But a governor is not the president. A state legislature is not Congress. A state is not the national government.
Presidents want the line-item veto because it would increase their power to shape the priorities of our national government. Conservatives supported this during the Reagan-Bush years because they could not persuade Congress to cut off appropriations for certain social programs.
Now if they give the line-item veto to Clinton, they can watch while he uses it to frustrate their efforts to increase defense spending. Suppose that Congress passes a defense appropriation bill that the president thinks is too big. Without a line-item veto, he is confronted with the painful choice of accepting the bill as passed, or of vetoing it and leaving the Defense Department without funds while he and Congress haggle over it. But with the line-item veto, he can slash away, reshaping Congress's bill to fit his notion of what the defense budget ought to look like. And it would take a two-thirds vote on each item to override him.
The heart of the issue is the separation of powers between Congress and the president. The federal budget is a statement of national priorities. It determines how the government allocates its resources.
It is a fuzzy blueprint, full of compromises. Decisions about it, as they are now, should be based on protracted and complicated interplay between and within both the executive and legislative branches. The Constitution provides what has aptly been described as ``a delicate balance.'' We ought not to tinker with it every time we feel frustrated by it.
The Democrats, who controlled the House throughout the Reagan-Bush years and who controlled the Senate for half of those years, were right in resisting executive calls for a line-item veto.
Now the Republicans control Congress during the administration of a Democratic president. They ought to be equally as zealous as the Democrats were in protecting the institution. Let us hope that they will be after they have gotten used to the responsibilities of power. The Opinion/Essay Page welcomes manuscripts. Authors of articles we accept will be notified by telephone. Authors of articles not accepted will be notified by postcard. Send manuscripts by mail to Opinions/Essays, One Norway Street, Boston, MA 02115, by fax to 617 -450-2317, or by Internet E-mail to OPED@RACHEL.CSPS.COM.