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Editorial - The truth about power

April 17, 1998

When a politician apologizes to his or her constituents, it's an event, in part because it happens so seldom. And so when U.S. Sen. Robert C. Byrd admitted to several hundred people he was wrong, it's even more noteworthy, because he did so knowing it would make the national news. We commend him for that, even though we disagree with some of what he said.

Byrd, speaking Wednesday at the West Virginia University College of Law, said he regretted ever supporting a constitutional amendment mandating a balanced budget. And Byrd railed against the line-item veto, which he said was an unconstitutional shift of power from the legislative to the executive branch.

What Byrd did not say is that many members of Congress backed the balanced-budget amendment, even though they could have balanced the budget without it, because they lacked the self-control to do the right thing in the absence of a law mandating it.

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The recent agreement on a balanced-budget plan came about in part because lawmakers feared the consequences of a constitutional mandate, including possibilities like presidential impoundments of funds and court battles over the question of what would or wouldn't put the budget out of balance.

As for the line-item veto, Byrd blasted the 1996 change, saying that it unconstitutionally gives the president the power to amend laws passed with full debate and compromises worked out by Congress.

What Byrd's rhetoric omits is that the line-item veto wasn't designed to gut measures that have been fully debated, but to prevent members of Congress from sneaking spending measures into unrelated legislation. In too many instances prior to its passage, a president who wanted a necessary bill (like disaster relief) would find he also had to swallow unrelated and wasteful "riders" to get it passed.

Byrd's long service (and the fact that he hasn't used it to enrich himself) has earned him a great deal of respect. What he needs to acknowledge is that what happened was not an executive grab for power, but a legislative acknowledgement that members couldn't use it responsibly.

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