Doug Bloomfield

Jewish World Review July 21 , 1998 / 27 Tamuz, 5758

Douglas M. Bloomfield

High Court line-item
ruling helps Israel

CONGRESS MAY NOT REALIZE IT, but it was saved from itself when the Supreme Court overturned the politically inspired "line item veto," which gives presidents the power to strike out specific items in tax and spending bills.

The 6-3 ruling is also good news for Jewish community lobbyists; the full agenda of domestic and foreign policy, including aid to Israel, could be vulnerable to the line item veto in the wrong hands.

The veto is a good example of that old adage about being careful what you wish for because it could come true.

Presidents of both parties sought this power for over a century, but it was not enacted until after the Republicans won control of the Congress in 1994, when the line item veto had been a key clause in their Contract with America

President Bill Clinton enthusiastically endorsed the legislation and signed it with great fanfare; it was the only item in the Contract that he supported.

Congressional Republicans were at the peak of their power and convinced Bill Clinton would be a one-term president, so they set the new law to take affect after the 1996 election.

But Clinton was reelected and instead of expanding their majority to enable them to override presidential vetoes, the GOP lost seats that year. Clinton began using his new power, striking out mostly Republican-favored spending projects.

He used it 82 times in 18 months to cut $869 million in spending, and was overridden only once.

The power to excise unwanted portions of tax and spending legislation while allowing the rest to become law was declared invalid last Thursday because it violates the Constitutional requirement that every bill must be presented to the president for approval or veto, and the high court said the founding fathers made no provision for only partial acceptance.

Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, writing the majority opinion, called it a "failure of political will" by surrendering some of its constitutional authority to the president. He said Article I gives the president only two choices: all or nothing; it is not a menu.

This concept of separation of powers has been behind the success of Jewish political advocacy, working through the Congress to pass laws and influence succeeding administrations on the full panoply of issues important to the community. When the Congress voted to surrender some of its power of the purse by giving presidents the line item veto, the power of the Jewish community also was weakened in both domestic and foreign policy.

The Court's reversal of the power drain was an important victory for American democracy as well as for the Jewish community and Israel.

For example, it means a president cannot strike out a portion of the foreign aid bill, such as military assistance or spending for a specified program, in order to force Jerusalem to comply with American policy demands.

While Clinton has been an unwavering supporter of aid to Israel and never threatened to withhold aid despite differences with Jerusalem, there were incidents in the two prior administrations when that could have happened.

In its early years the Reagan Administration pursued what the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) called a "pressure and punish" policy towards Israel. In 1981 Reagan embargoed the delivery of F-16s to Israel to penalize it for bombing the Iraqi nuclear reactor, and the following year it asked the Congress to cut $200 million in aid as punishment for rejecting the Reagan-Shultz peace plan.

With a line item veto, Ronald Reagan could easily have blocked military or economic assistance to Israel or a particular project. George Bush blocked loan guarantees in order to pressure Israel to change its settlements policy; judging by that performance, it is not unfair to assume that with a line item veto he might well have done more.

By contrast, Bill Clinton, the only president ever to have or use the line item veto, also disagrees with Israeli settlement policy (though not as strenuously), but there is no hint he would wield it against Israel. But what happens when an unfriendly president comes to the Oval Office? What if Bob Dole, who, between presidential campaigns, had advocated using foreign aid to force Israel to conform to American policy, had been elected in 1996?

The Senate's chief sponsors of the veto, Republicans John McCain of Arizona and Dan Coates of Indiana, have vowed to keep trying to find a constitutional solution. But they may find getting the votes will be more difficult on their side of the aisle, especially if they go ahead with one of their plans, to split the present 13 appropriations bills into thousands of little ones.

The votes are not there for a constitutional amendment, the only sure way to get a line item veto, and probably not for most of the other solutions being mentioned, either. A big reason is the deficits of 1994 have been replaced by the surpluses of 1998 just as the challengers of that earlier year are today's incumbents, and from where they now sit, budget pork is a much tastier dish.

Republicans may not want to admit it publicly, but they're probably silently thanking the Supreme Court for protecting them from their own folly.

While the line item veto was a top GOP agenda item, it is not a partisan issue, and Bill Clinton was an enthusiastic supporter along with such prominent liberals as Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-Mass), Russ Feingold (D-Wisc) and Paul Wellstone (D-Minn).

Israel was never an issue in the debate over the veto legislation, despite the potential impact. In fact, one of the great ironies is that the leader of the anti-veto forces has been Sen. Robert Byrd (D-WV), not a member of Israel's 95 or so best friends in the U.S. Senate. Nonetheless, friends of Israel owe him a hearty toda raba.

Douglas M. Bloomfield is JWR's Washington correspondent


©1998, Douglas M. Bloomfield