Perhaps because he's a popular Republican president while both houses of Congress are in the hands of Democratic majorities, President Bush increasingly is using the threat of a veto to get the kind of legislation he wants. Ronald Reagan also faced the same situation but did not exercise the veto club as often or as effectively.

Bush has wielded the veto 13 times against the 101st Congress and not once has any of his rejections been overridden. That kind of performance becomes a powerful tool in the hands of a determined leader. But it can be weakened by overuse.Not only has the president vetoed 13 measures, his threat of veto hangs over perhaps 30 other pieces of legislation, including most of the major bills now working their way through Congress. Some bills under the veto shadow have already passed one or both houses and are being fine-tuned.

Bush's threatened vetoes include the Civil Rights Act of 1990 because of objections to anti-bias standards that the president feels might force businesses into quotas to avoid lawsuits; the Five-Year Farm Bill, because of veering away from market-oriented policies established in the 1985 bill; the Clean Air Act, because of costs to industry; some 13 appropriations bills because of spending levels; and more than a dozen other measures ranging from child care to water projects.

In many cases, such as the textile import limits and costly federal programs, the president is on solid ground. In others, such as opposing cuts in expensive weapon systems or opposing new fuel economy standards, Bush is on the wrong side of the issue. In still other situations, such as who controls fish inspections, the question is too frivolous to warrant a presidential veto threat.

Despite his success with the veto, there are dangers in using it too often or for less-than-significant legislation. A veto ought to be a last-resort act when important public issues are clearly at stake. Using it for too many things can demean this presidential prerogative. A veto threat voiced too frequently can lose its effectiveness, becoming just part of the political background noise.

Another problem with reliance on the veto is that it can paralyze legislative work. Congress already is in trouble because too much has been left too late in the session. Excessive waving of the veto threat can tend to slow or stifle important work. And last-minute legislative frenzies hardly ever produce the kind of laws the country deserves.

For maximum effectiveness, the veto should be used as a scalpel, not a meat ax. The veto should be saved for truly important principles and policies, rather than be applied to every political disagreement in sight.