Egged on by the Clinton Administration, the Republican Congress began debate Thursday on granting the President a line-item veto, an authority that some call a vital tool in the long march toward a balanced federal budget.
If approved, the measure will allow a President to delete individual expenditures in an appropriations bill, a power that 43 governors now wield and one that indisputably would enhance a President's powers at the expense of Congress.
Presidents currently either must veto an entire appropriations bill or let it become law--even if it contains individual expenditures that they oppose.
The eagerness of Republicans to invest such authority in a Democratic chief executive whom some view as a tax-and-spend liberal reflects the depths of the anti-spending mood that has gripped the new Congress.
"It matters not to us" that a Democratic President would be so empowered, said Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.). "I don't believe we'll ever achieve a balanced budget without it."
Also Thursday, the Senate began debate on legislation that would restrict the ability of Congress to pass laws that require state and local governments to take certain actions without providing federal money to pay for them.
The Senate began its debate on the so-called unfunded mandates just two days after the legislation cleared its committees. No formal report had been filed explaining the bill in detail--prompting Democrats to charge that the Republican majority was pushing it through without full debate.
"I don't want to buy a pig in a poke," said Sen. Robert W. Byrd (D-W. Va.).
Under the GOP proposal, the Congressional Budget Office would estimate the cost to state and local governments of every bill and amendment that contains a mandate.
At a joint House-Senate committee hearing Thursday on the line-item veto, critics described it as a gimmick and succeeded in forcing proponents to acknowledge that its effect will be limited. That's because the current proposals would shield entitlement programs such as Medicare and Social Security from the proposed presidential power, thus exposing only discretionary spending programs, which account for a diminishing percentage of the federal budget.
Under questioning, Alice Rivlin, director of the White House Office of Management and Budget, conceded as much, although she quickly added: "But that doesn't mean it's not important."
Rep. Cardiss Collins (D-Ill.), however, was not persuaded. "Budget gimmicks are not going to eradicate the huge debt this country has built up. . . . It was spending way beyond our means" that ran up the debt, she said. "This bill is aimed at the wrong end of Pennsylvania Avenue."
Sen. William V. Roth Jr. (R-Del.), who co-chaired the hearing, did not dispute Collins, but he called the line-item veto authority "an essential tool, coupled with the (proposed) constitutional balanced-budget amendment, to help restore fiscal integrity to our government."
In her testimony before the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee and the House Government Reform and Oversight Committee, Rivlin reiterated President Clinton's strong support for the line-item veto, a power that he enjoyed as Arkansas governor.
The line-item veto was a part of the No. 1 priority in the House Republican "contract with America," the campaign document that now is setting the legislative agenda on Capitol Hill after the GOP's resounding victories in the November elections.
Just as the line-item veto authority varies in detail and scope among the 43 states that use it, the pending proposals in Congress have their differences. But the essential nature is the same. After a presidential line-item veto, Congress could overturn it only with a two-thirds majority.
Supporters said a line-item veto would help control reckless spending by Congress--and that the very threat of a presidential veto would serve as a deterrent to what Rep. Mark W. Neumann (R-Wis.) called "would-be pork-barrel spenders."
But opponents argued that a President might abuse the veto authority by threatening to kill lawmakers' projects unless they agree to support Administration pet initiatives.
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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)
DEVELOPMENTS ON THE HILL / The 104th Congress
In The House:
Office of Management and Budget Director Alice Rivlin endorsed the White House's favorable views on the line-item veto in a joint hearing before the House Governmental Reform and Oversight Committee and the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee.
Responding to news that Rep. Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) met with News Corp. chief Rupert Murdoch last November, Rep. David E. Bonior (D-Mich.) and Rep. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill) renewed their call for an independent counsel to investigate the House Speaker's controversial book deal with Murdoch's publishing company.
In The Senate:
Debate began on restricting "unfunded mandates," federal laws that require state and local governments to take actions without providing federal money to pay for them. No detailed report had been filed on the bill, though, causing Democrats to complain that the Republican majority was pushing it through without full debate.
House hearing on the welfare provisions of the "contract with America."
Developments On The Hill, Los Angeles Times