1997 News of the Nation
Political posturing and partisan nit-picking took center stage against a stable backdrop of a strong and growing economy. The only high-profile evidence of the bipartisan cooperation President Clinton called for in his second inaugural address was the passage of a balanced-budget agreement. But this legislation required fewer than the usual compromises by each party, since windfall tax revenues generated by the strong economy meant fewer pet projects needed to be cut.
The budget battle had its share of casualties, though. The budget bill that passed the Congress emerged from the White House a few items lighter, as Clinton took this opportunity to exercise the line-item veto for the first time. This new power had been approved by the Republican Congress in 1994, though the Republicans had delayed its implementation until 1997, hoping for a Republican in the White House. The criteria Clinton used for his veto included the number of people affected by the item, whether it was good public policy, and whether it was part of the deal originally struck with Congress. He vetoed three tax breaks: one would have reimbursed New York State $200 million in Medicaid fees, vetoed since other states were not receiving the same subsidy; the second was a capital gains cut for sugar beet processing plants (its principal beneficiary would have been a large contributor to the Republican party whose taxes would have been significantly reduced); the third would have reduced the taxes on financial institutions that relocate funds in overseas banks. Critics within House Speaker Newt Gingrich's office claimed the vetos were more politics than policy, but Clinton defended his choices as being in the interests of the nation at large. In October, Clinton used the veto again to cancel 38 items in a military construction bill, saving $287 million.
The legality of the line-item veto power had been upheld by the Supreme Court in June, when it ruled that the plaintiffs who were suing to suspend the new power did not have standing to bring the suit. They did not comment on the constitutionality of the veto power, however, leaving open the possibility of future suits once the President exercised the veto. Of the 79 items deemed candidates for the line-item veto, Clinton carefully selected those he thought most likely to endure a challenge on the constitutionality of the power.
Other important legislation was needlessly delayed by political squabbling between the parties. A bill to send financial aid to victims of the Red River flood in the northern Plains was held up for weeks when House Republicans tacked on two unrelated clauses about government shut-downs and methods to be used in conducting the 2000 census. Clinton vowed to veto the bill unless the provisions were removed, but Republicans would not back down. The bill eventually landed on the Oval Office desk and was promptly vetoed. When polls showed that the public was blaming Republicans for delaying the disaster relief, the $8.6 billion bill was resubmitted minus the provisions, and was signed.
Ironically, there was no quarreling between the parties over a proposed $3,073 annual raise. The cost-of-living increase amounts to 2.3% of their $133,600 salary and would go into effect January 1, 1998. Though legislators had been entitled to this increase, legislators had voted every year since 1992 to hold congressional salaries at their current levels.