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The Line-Item Veto

HOUSE Speaker Newt Gingrich calls it a sign of bipartisanship that the Republican-controlled Congress is moving so expeditiously to grant the president a line-item veto.

But it is also a sign of desperation over the need to impose discipline on the federal budget. Like the balanced-budget amendment, the line-item veto is a kind of plea for help from the Congress: Stop us before we spend again.

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A line-item veto would allow the president to strike out ``pork barrel'' spending projects from those notorious omnibus appropriations bills.

The argument against the veto is that it would alter the balance of power between the legislative and executive branches. The current system leads to a certain dealmaking between the two branches, which is not inherently bad, but very much out of favor at the moment. The 104th Congress is in large part the product of voter frustration with the deals struck in Washington over the years.

It's not clear that the line-item veto will do much to shrink the federal deficit. A lot of pork-barrel horror stories make for great applause lines but are really trifles in the context of a budget of more than a trillion and a half dollars. On the other hand, most governors have a line-item veto, and some - notably Massachusetts - have seen improved budgetary discipline.

What the line-item veto will do, however, is transfer some fiscal responsibility from the Congress, with its diffused centers of power, and focus attention on one individual. The buck stops here, President Truman said, and with a line-item veto, his successors will be under particular pressure to scrutinize every bill for spending projects out of which the opposition could conceivably make political hay if they were let through.

The line-item veto, part of the House Republicans' ``Contract With America,'' is being handled as a bill, not a constitutional amendment. This is appropriate, not only because conservatives, of all people, should be expected to exercise great caution in tinkering with the Constitution, but also because the legislative route will mean that the people get a chance to see how well the veto would work sooner rather than later. This is in keeping with the experimental boldness of the new Congress.

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