THE very first item in the Republican Contract with America called for a ''line-item veto to restore fiscal responsibility to an out-of-control Congress.''
The line-item veto would give the president the right to veto single items in an appropriation bill. At present, the president cannot pick and choose the items he likes; he must veto or sign the entire bill. On Feb. 6, the House of Representatives approved a line-item veto bill by 294 to 134. On March 23, the Senate passed a different version by 69 to 29. The big majorities were bipartisan: Many Democrats voted for the legislation.
Six months later, it has not become law. While the Senate has appointed a committee to resolve differences, the House has not. The legislation has never reached President Clinton, who eagerly awaits this expansion of his power.
During the House debate last winter, Speaker Newt Gingrich emphasized that Republicans believed so strongly in the line-item veto that they were willing to grant it to a Democratic president. He has since had second thoughts. It is no secret that Republicans do not want to give such sweeping new power to the president in time for him to wield it in this year's budget cycle, the year before the election.
A bipartisan tradition
While Republicans talk about a revolution in the way government spends taxpayer money, the GOP, now dominant in Congress, is the keeper of a decades-old bipartisan tradition of finding ways to aid businesses back home. Some call this tradition ''pork''; it is clearly a function of our representative government. Senators and representatives are expected to guard both national and local interests, but if there is a conflict between the two, catering to local interests will obtain more votes.
Of the $7 billion in weapons spending that the Senate Armed Services Committee added on to President Clinton's budget request, 81 percent would go to states represented by senators who sit on the committee or on the Appropriations defense subcommittee. This is a practice as common among Republicans as Democrats. Changes of parties don't matter. The leading denouncer of this practice is conservative Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona, who fills pages of the Congressional Record with examples of bipar tisan pork. Pork is not restricted to the military budget; every congressional committee operates similarly.
Shift of patronage power
Giving the line-item veto to this president or any president will not stop the practices. It will simply shift the power to dole out favors from the legislative branch to the executive branch, enhancing the power of one person for his or her political purposes.
An anecdote about President Lyndon Johnson illustrates the point. When a US senator from a Rocky Mountain state voted against a Johnson initiative on the Vietnam War, the president summoned him to the White House to explain the vote. The senator cited a study by a Harvard professor. President Johnson did not argue about the details. He simply said, ''The next time your state needs a dam, ask the Harvard professor for one.''
The weak presidencies of George Bush and Bill Clinton have masked the growth in the power of the office. Even so, the president's command of the media is unchallenged. Daily he is on the front page or on TV, giving us his version of the ''facts.'' He makes war, makes peace, and sets the national domestic agenda. Presidents could use better judgement, but they certainly don't need more power.
The authors of the Constitution were right to put the power of the purse in the hands of legislators. That is the best guarantee of our liberties, present and future. Let the line-item veto fade away.