TODAY THE HOUSE of Representatives is scheduled to decide whether to sustain or override the president's veto of the $37-billion defense authorization bill. The word has been around for some time that the House will probably sustain Mr. Carter, and that the question thus will not go to the Senate at all, since both bodies are needed to override a veto. If that proves to be the case, and we hope it does, it will in large measure have been accomplished despite the arguments of the Carter White House in support of the veto - rather than because of them.
There is a strong case to be made against the authorization of funds in the fiscal '79 budget for a fifth nuclear aircraft carrier. But for reasons that continue to baffle us, the president, vetoing the bill, seemed reluctant to make it. Instead, his veto message cited all manner of "cuts" the Congress had made in the budget in order to provide funds for this carrier, cuts the president insisted would result in a terrible weakening of our defense posture and which were thus anathema to him. The trouble, of course, turned out to be that his supporting evidence was confected in large part of pretense and hot air. Under scrutiny, the figures the president's aides provided him to support the argument went the way of a meringue in a blast furnace.On the opposite page today we reprint a brief statement in support of the veto, made by retired admiral Elmo R. Zumwait Jr., former chief of naval operations, and sent around to members of Congress. Adm. Zumwalt addresses those critics who say the fifth nuclear carrier would be no more expensive than a large oil-burning carrier; he points to the hidden and indirect costs associated with the nuclear carrier. He argues that those costs offer severely diminished benefits in the case of a fifth such carrier as distinct from the "significant" benefits of the first one, and the "worthwhile but decreasing benefits" of the three that followed. Among the added costs of the nuclear carrier that are not always figured in by its supporters are those associated with providing it with nuclear escort ships if its special capacity is to be fully utilized.
This, along with the strategic arguments against the addition of a fifth nuclear carrier to the fleet and assurances that the funds for the conventional substitute the president contemplates would be requested in the FY'80 budget should have formed the heart of the president's argument. They have the advantage of being genuinely relevant to his veto, and such an argument would have allowed him to request that certain other funds be added or put back in the FY'79 authorization - since some, but far from all, of the cuts he mentioned should be restored. We are not prepared to endorse either all of Adm. Zumwalt's proposed subsitutions for the nuclear carrier, or his timetable for providing them. But we are prepared to argue that 1) there is a far better case - and Adm. Zumwalt more nearly made it - for the president's veto than the president himself made in proclaiming it and 2) the figures Mr. Carter tossed around could come back to haunt him.
One reason we believe the latter to be true is that, if Mr. Carter's veto is sustained, as expected, the rewriting of the vetoed authorization will be an invitation to throw in Lord knows what. A second and no less important reason we think Mr. Carter's funny-figures will ultimately damage him, never mind how the veto vote comes out, is that he has sent an absolutely wrong message to the serious defense-minded legislators in both the Senate and the House. He has accused them of being reckless, supported his accusation with data they know to be largely inaccurate and thus conveyed an idea that he is not serious on this most serious of matters. That damage will be a long time in the undoing, in our judgement. Meanwhile, we hope his veto will in fact be sustained.