The Veto's on the Line

President Clinton is giving the opponents of the line item veto an opportunity to prove their point. By carefully axing some minor portions of the recently passed budget and tax bills, he creates aggrieved parties - legislators who backed the measures, or constituents who would have benefitted - who can now scramble back to the courts.

That scramble commenced early this year soon after the line item veto law took effect. It reached a preliminary climax in April with a decision by Federal District Court Judge Thomas Penfield Jackson to strike down the law as an infringement of Congress's constitutional power to set federal spending levels. Judge Jackson's ruling was appealed by the administration to the US Supreme Court.

The high court was to provide the final climax, deciding the law's fate. But the justices chose, instead, to defer judgment, holding that those bringing suit against the veto law - five present members of Congress and one past member - had no standing to sue since the veto hadn't been used. That is, no one could claim injury.

With that objection out of the way, the constitutional issues raised by the line item power can again go before the Supreme Court. We assume the same group of legislators will waste no time in moving that process along.

The outcome ought to conform to the reasoning of Judge Jackson. He rejected the argument that the line item veto was an extension of the impoundment power already delegated to the president by Congress. It was no less, said the judge, than a blurring of the lines between legislative and executive powers, since the president would have the authority to give final shape to laws - a power that belongs to Congress alone.

In the interim before a final Supreme Court ruling on the subject, Mr. Clinton's motives for issuing a veto now - instead of waiting until the fall's appropriations bills, as some of his aides urged - will be minutely analyzed. Was it a need to show he's no "wimp," after all the budget bill compromising?

Whatever the motive, it means quicker resolution of an important constitutional issue.

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