Acting Presidential

In the heat of the election campaign, President Bush says his goal is to act presidential. Well, I know just the thing he could do to maintain the presidential image: He could claim the line-item veto. That term means a president's power to veto only certain parts of an appropriations bill passed by Congress. As things currently stand, Congress may debate several different items at separate times and in separate committees. But then all those items are bundled together into one huge omnibus bill, and the only choice the president has is to approve or veto the whole thing. President Reagan made the point graphically on TV when he hoisted up a budget package from Congress consisting of 3,000+ pages and weighing 43 pounds. The president's only choice was to sign the whole thing or let the government go under. Some choice. These huge bills are thickets where Congress finds it easy to hide pork barrel projects. For example, a few years ago President Bush asked Congress for emergency funds for Panama. Congress took 6 months to write up the bill. And attached to it like barnacles were tens of millions of dollars in pork projects: things like $6 million for a memorial to Franklin Roosevelt. If Bush wanted the money for Panama, he had to sign the whole thing. That's what he ended up doing. But a line-item veto would have given him the power to red-line just the pork. A study by the General Accounting Office found that if a line-item veto had been available to the president between 1984 and 1989, in just those 5 years the country could have saved $70 billion. Many constitutional scholars say the president already has the constitutional authority to exercise a line-item veto, and that he could simply assert the power without waiting for Congress to authorize it. That's what presidents used to do, from George Washington to Richard Nixon. If Congress appropriated funds for a project they disagreed with, they simply impounded the funds--refused to spend them. But then, in 1974, Congress passed the Congressional Budget and Impoundment Control Act, which was designed to prevent presidents from impounding funds. So today, many scholars say, the only way the president can recover that power is to call Congress' bluff--to unilaterally invoke the authority to veto individual spending items. No doubt, Congress would immediately make a lawsuit out of the issue. It tried that route several times before the 1974 Budget Act was passed. But that's fine. Let Congress bring the matter to court. And let the Supreme Court settle the matter once and for all. Even if the President doesn't win his case, he will have made an important point. He will have focused public attention on the problem of overspending, on fat in the federal budget. And he will have placed himself firmly on the side of the people over against Washington's big-time spenders. It's a question of stewardship. Will the president keep letting taxpayers' hard-earned money be spent in a cavalier fashion on politicians' pet projects? Or will he stand for the people against the politicians? It's a tailor-made opportunity for George Bush to show he really is presidential--not just in style but also in substance.


Chuck Colson


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