When powerful Sen. Robert C. Byrd, D-W.Va., took the floor of the Senate last week for a "history lesson" on who controls federal spending, he was trying to defeat a proposal to allow the president a budgetary line-item veto. But in the process, he perhaps inadvertantly put the blame for federal deficits and other economic problems where it rightly belongs - on Congress.
In a political sense, especially in an election year, a president is seen as a target, as responsible for every wrong, every grievance, every problem. In reality, there usually is very little he can do about many of them and normally isn't to blame for such problems in the first place.When it comes right down to it, a president doesn't have a lot of power in domestic economic affairs.
He can make speeches on television, pound the pulpit, tell Congress what he wants. But beyond that, his real authority is limited. Like the Wizard of Oz, it's mostly impressive smoke, noise and image.
When the nation's economy turns sour, it's not due to something a president did. And when critics cry, "Do something" to fix it, the same limitation applies. A president, by himself, cannot produce jobs or make the economic engine run faster.
Government can create jobs, though not nearly as well as private enterprise can, but that takes money. And Congress has the sole power to appropriate money and decide how and where it will be spent. The president can only suggest, propose and hope that Congress takes his advice.
That reality was emphasized by Byrd, in his argument against a presidential line-item veto. The West Virginia senator defended Congress' absolute power of the purse and said it was a power that "should not be shared by presidents."
However, that reality raises a question. Why are presidents persistently blamed for budget deficits? For example, the record-setting red ink of the early 1980s is described by critics as "Reagan deficits" - yet it was Congress, mostly under control of the opposition party, that appropriated all the money.
Bush and Reagan can be criticized for never submitting a balanced budget proposal to Congress, but if recent history is any indication, such a drastic plan would not be greeted with open arms in Congress, and it is Congress that decides how much to spend.
Recently, in a debate involving presidential candidates, President Bush was criticized for not doing more about the federal deficit. It was particularly ironic that among those making such statements were members of Congress, who - unlike Bush - actually hold the power of the federal purse.
Maybe Sen. Byrd should explain again about the power of the purse - and the responsibility that goes with it - to a larger audience, including members of his own party.