Line-Item Veto Tips Traditional Balance of Power
By Guy Gugliotta and Eric Pianin
On Oct. 6, Sen. Conrad Burns (R-Mont.) invited President Clinton to lunch at Montana's Malmstrom Air Force Base's dining hall, a broken-down wreck whose "serving areas," he said later, "would be borderline" on a health inspection.
Clinton had just used his new line-item veto power to strike the dining hall's proposed $4.5 million rehab from one of the annual spending bills, and Burns, a senior member of the Senate Appropriations Committee with enormous responsibility for military construction projects, told Clinton he was "disappointed" by the decision. He wanted to discuss it "and other important projects" at "your convenience."
The advent of the line-item veto has shaken the 200-year-old power relationships in the federal government. While presidents have always paid close attention to their own priorities, the veto has given them an unprecedented ability to micromanage the appropriations process.
White House sources say the line-item veto has provoked a blizzard of letters and phone calls from Congress to Clinton, touting the merits of tiny projects that until this year were tucked so deeply into appropriations bills that they scarcely merited a presidential glance.
Thus Burns, chairman of the Senate's military construction subcommittee, lost his own project in his own bill. Burns shrugged off the snub, but said, "We haven't given up on this." The Malmstrom rehab, he said, is included in legislation to override the veto that the Appropriations Committee approved yesterday.
Micromanaging projects may be the most obvious evidence of the new executive presence in Congress's business, but many experts and lawmakers believe it may be only the tip of the iceberg. Both Republicans and Democrats worry presidents may use the veto to extract promises of support on unrelat ed legislation, exact revenge against political enemies or to make policy, leaning on individual lawmakers where they are most vulnerable tending to their home town affairs.
"It's not lost on me that this has political overtones, but that's fine, it comes with the territory," said Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.), a conservative, who, like Burns, lost a military construction project to the veto pen. "If you're a big boy, you take your lumps and go after them next year."
But many lawmakers have decided not to sit still, and budget mavens on Capitol Hill are brainstorming ways to counter or cope with the veto. Some appropriators are talking about legislative mechanisms to immunize particular items; others are suggesting that obvious veto bait be jettisoned from the final versions of bills.
Others see the veto as a precedent-setting escape mechanism that could be used to break deadlock on controversial appropriations bills. They say the president could veto provisions he opposes, but let the rest stand, thus averting the danger of a government shutdown or the need for an interim spending measure based on the previous year's expenditures. Congress has yet to clear six of the 13 annual spending bills, three weeks after the start of the fiscal year.
Still, cautioned House Appropriations Committee Chairman Bob Livingston (R-La.), it is too early to predict what will happen. "When the president signed the line-item veto legislation we were all shooting in the dark as far as how it would work. We are still groping."
One thing on which almost everyone interviewed could agree, however, was that the line-item veto would not serve as a significant brake on federal spending, even for parochial "pork-barrel" projects. Of the five appropriations bills signed so far, only $458 million in projects has been lined out by Clinton, or less than a percentage point of the $291.3 billion in the bills.
"The line-item veto is never going to be a deficit reduction tool, and you think they [Congress] would have realized it when they gave it to the president," said Stanley E. Collender, an expert on federal spending issues. "It's a raw exercise in power."
The line-item veto, a pillar of the House Republicans' "Contract With America," passed both houses of Congress overwhelmingly and was signed into law in early 1996.
It took effect during the budget year that began Oct. 1.
The law has been challenged in court for radically altering the balance of power within the federal government without the enactment of a constitutional amendment. Many experts believe the law will be struck down, but until it is, the president for the first time in history may delete individual spending items from appropriations bills without vetoing the entire bill.
Clinton first used the authority in August to veto three provisions from the five-year omnibus budget agreement, but it was not until Oct. 6, when he struck 38 projects worth $287 million from Burns's military construction appropriations bill, that he caught Congress's attention.
"He had to convince everybody he was willing to use it," Collender said.
Lawmakers were convinced. The vetoes touched off an uproar among congressional leaders who had not been consulted in advance. "We're dealing with a raw abuse of political power by a president who doesn't have to run again," thundered Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Ted Stevens (R-Alaska).
But since the military construction vetoes, Clinton has used the authority sparingly on three other appropriations bills, prompting speculation in some quarters that he had become gun shy after the initial upheaval.
Just yesterday, Office of Management and Budget Director Franklin D. Raines acknowledged that several projects were mistakenly crossed out of the military construction bill. In a letter to Stevens, Raines said, "We are committed to working with Congress to restore funding for those projects that were canceled as a result of inaccuracies in the data provided by the Department of Defense."
"This is clearly evolving," said Senate Budget Committee staff director G. William Hoagland. "Maybe like the kid in the candy store, his eyes were bigger than his stomach, and now he sees he has to be careful not to jeopardize the power."
But OMB spokesman Lawrence J. Haas said there was no "pattern" of political manipulation. The president, he said, was trying to use the veto "because of the substance before him, not because of the politics."
A crucial test may come next week when Clinton will examine the Veterans Affairs-Housing and Urban Development and independent agencies appropriations bill. Lawmakers acknowledge it is full of special projects, and one White House source described the bill as "one of the most project-based in years."
Despite uncertainty about how Clinton will next use the veto, it is clear that Congress is wary and mistrustful. "I've never seen a vote taken where more people wanted their vote back," said House Appropriations Committee member Rep. Jose E. Serrano (D-N.Y.), who opposed the line-item veto.
Indeed, hundreds of lawmakers have been contacting the White House since the military construction bill. Burns and Santorum wrote to complain about vetoes already exercised and to warn of adverse consequences to military readiness.
Florida Sens. Bob Graham (D) and Connie Mack (R), by contrast, wrote a joint letter stressing the need for $1 million to establish a Central Florida High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area. "We would request that you keep in mind the importance of the Central Florida HIDTA to the national war on drugs and to us personally as you consider the Fiscal Year 1998 Treasury Appropriation," the letter said. The line item survived.
Among those who lost favored projects, Rep. Jerry Lewis (R-Calif.) was still steamed a week after Clinton vetoed his district's $4 million breast cancer research grant. And he spoke of exacting a penalty suggesting he might oppose Clinton in his efforts to obtain "fast-track" authority to negotiate trade agreements. "I don't like to link things," he said, but "there is a two-way street here."
Collender cautioned that in the revenge game, "the president holds all the cards." A member may withhold one vote, but he will lose on another bill or be embarrassed on another line-item, Collender said. "The president may lose a battle, but he will win the war."
Most lawmakers, however, agreed with former Congressional Budget Office director Robert D. Reischauer, who described veto gamesmanship as "a two-edged sword. The more influence the president tries to exert, the more of a backlash he will see. We have already seen it."
Sen. Bob Kerrey (D-Neb.) used the line-item veto as his state's governor, but voted against the federal line-item veto. He said it gave the president too much power, suggesting he could use it to trade projects for votes. "Now the president is going to say, `I want X,' would you help me? And the answer will be, `Yes, but what are you going to do for me this year?' "
This is one way the president can make policy with the line-item veto. Another way is to veto items that effectively eliminate entire programs. Clinton has already done this by striking out $39 million for the SR-71 Blackbird spy plane, said Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.). "They never wanted to keep it."
McCain, a dedicated cost-cutter who has criticized Clinton for not being aggressive enough with the veto, nevertheless cautions against "politicizing" the process and permanently poisoning relations between the two branches of government.
As for those who complain about the veto, McCain noted that many lawmakers spent years fighting for it when a Democratic Congress remained adamantly opposed. "To my Republican colleagues, I say, `Be careful what you ask for. You may get it.' "
© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company