A MONTH into its new fiscal year, the United States government still doesn't have a budget. As in other recent years, it looks as though Congress, rather than sending President Bush an orderly succession of discrete spending bills for various federal functions, will toss all the members' appropriations requests into a large pot and present them to Mr. Bush as an ``omnibus,'' trillion-dollar goulash. A goulash with lots of pork. The congressional budget process has become a free-for-all incapable of producing a budget until hours before the government runs out of money. One effect - nice from Congress's vantage - is that the resulting emergency spending measures are virtually veto-proof. Would a president shut down the government just to save a few billion?
Like 12 of his predecessors of both parties, Bush wants the power to veto items in spending bills selectively , rather than have an all-or-nothing choice. Presidents have requested this power since 1873, but Congress has brushed the proposal aside.
Now Bush says he might exercise the line-item veto on his own and let the Supreme Court decide its constitutionality. The White House says it's looking for an appropriate test case. Congress has made it clear that it will take the president to court.
Some legal scholars contend that the president has the item veto as an inherent part of his constitutional authority; without it, they say, Congress can effectively veto the presidential veto. They buttress their case with Article I, Section 7, Clause 3 of the Constitution. This clause extends the veto power - which the previous clause applies to ``every Bill'' - to ``every Order, Resolution, or Vote'' of Congress. The effect, proponents say, is to allow the president to unbundle aggregated pieces of legislation and veto selected items.
Other constitutional scholars disagree. Implicit in the separation of powers, they say, is that it shouldn't be easy for one branch to exercise dominant power. Initiative in budget and tax matters, efficiently handled or not, is a responsibility of Congress.
It is difficult to know where tampering with the system would lead. And the system should not be changed simply because the players balk at making it work.
Nonetheless, let the president give the line-item veto a try. Something, it seems, needs to exert new discipline on the budget process. After President Nixon refused to spend funds appropriated by Congress for projects he opposed, the lawmakers rose up. Under the 1974 Budget Act, Congress restricted the president's ``impoundment'' authority and reserved much tighter control over the budget process. Subsequent experience does not build confidence in Congress's budget practices, however.
For political reasons, the line-item veto probably would be used sparingly. Its very existence, though, might check the congressional tendency to bury a dam here and a ``study'' there inside vast spending bills, safely out of the president's reach.
The governors of 43 states have item-veto authority. Claims made for the line-item veto's contribution to solving the country's deficit problems undoubtedly are exaggerated. But with the budget thicket in Washington getting denser by the year, it wouldn't hurt to let the president do some pruning.