Veto: Strike 2

The presidential line-item veto is headed toward its third strike. The US Supreme Court will decide if the budget-tuning tool long sought by presidents and bestowed a year ago by Congress can stay in the game.

A federal judge in the District of Columbia ruled last week that it couldn't. He held - as a colleague of his had held last spring - that the line-item power trespasses on appropriations authority exclusively granted the Congress by the Constitution.

The earlier district court decision against the veto was set aside by the high court because, at the time, President Clinton hadn't yet used his new power. There were no truly aggrieved parties, just a group of lawmakers who found the veto abhorrent.

Now the injured parties are front and center. New York stands to lose $2.6 billion in Medicaid payments because of the Clinton blue pencil. An Idaho potato growers' cooperative stands to lose valued tax breaks.

If you pile these excised items next to the trimmings from military construction projects and a few other choice spending sprouts, it might make a pretty good case for the new veto power. Mr. Clinton snipped off 82 items last year, some $2 billion worth - hardly a big factor in balancing the budget.

But the problem with the line-item power is neither overuse nor misuse. The problem, as the judges have noted and the Supreme Court should confirm, is its collision with the Constitution's carefully balanced realms of authority. The power of the purse is given to the national legislature - the branch of government most responsive to the people. To shift a chunk of that power to the president is to redesign our constitutional structure.

If that's the desire, it will have to come through a constitutional amendment, not a self-sacrificial act of Congress.

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