Like most governors, Bill Clinton used his power to veto individual line items in appropriations bills as a lever to get his way with his legislature. Now, Clinton wants to wield the same weapon as President against Congress. He has a good chance to win that authority because many of the 100-plus newly elected House members campaigned in favor of the idea. He should go for it.
By itself, the line-item veto can't do much to reduce the deficit. The big budget-busters--health care, retirement payments, interest on the national debt--are not subject to annual appropriations. And as the Bush Administration learned, a President who wields his veto pen indiscriminately risks drowning in a sea of negativism. At best, a determined President might kill a few billion dollars' worth of unnecessary spending a year--a small dent in a $300 billion deficit.
What's really at issue is the relative power of the White House and Congress to control spending--and hence the domestic agenda in general. The ability to kill individual expenditure items, unless two-thirds of Congress vots to keep them, would give a President a powerful rein on Congress' free-spending biases. So powerful, in fact, that a wary Democratic congressional leadership has already suggested a fudge: Congress could restore the line items with a simple majority vote. A noncommittal Clinton termed this a "good place for us to begin discussion."
We think the President-elect should push to fulfill his campaign pledge. That way, by taking on a Democratic congressional leadership loath to surrender any of its prerogatives, he will immediately establish his bona fides as a fiscally responsible Democrat.