Can George Bush do a better job than Ronald Reagan did of curbing Congress' penchant for spending excesses?

Maybe so. At least the White House ought to think seriously about the bold suggestion the other day from Senate Republican Leader Robert Dole of Kansas: Start exercising the line-item veto rather than just talking about it.As a proposal, the line-item veto should be familiar by now. The idea is that the president should have the power possessed by most governors, the power to strike out individual items in a spending bill, rather than be forced to accept or reject the entire bill as a package.

Reagan likes this idea so much that, Scripps Howard News Service reports, he is still campaigning for it even in retirement. Unquestionably, it would help restore the balance between spending and restraint that Congress disrupted with its 1974 budget "reforms."

One problem: Congress is not likely to enact legislation that would diminish its own powers. But fortunately, says Dole, "such legislation could well be unnecessary, because the Constitution already grants the president line-item veto power."

Dole cites Article I, Section 7, Clause 3: "Every order, resolution or vote to which the concurrence of the Senate and House of Representatives may be necessary (except on a question of adjournment) shall be presented to the President of the United States; and before the same shall take effect, shall be approved by him, or being disapproved by him, shall be repassed by two-thirds of the Senate and House of Representatives, according to the rules and limitations prescribed in the case of a bill."

This language clearly gives a president the same power to veto an "order, resolution or vote" as to veto a "bill." No president has ever exercised this power, but Dole thinks that it includes the option to target specific spending items, since they usually result from separate votes.

The Constitution's framers would probably agree. Back when congressional leaders included James Madison and other authors of our basic law, they appropriated funds in general terms such as "Navy" - letting the executive branch decide the specifics. Today's "omnibus" bills, combining thousands of items in one huge package, were unheard of.

The 1987 "continuing resolution," for example, was 1,194 pages long. It included such favors to special interests as an amendment barring the Corps of Engineers from selling any of its three executive aircraft. President Reagan said that he would have vetoed $4.3 billion worth of its provisions if he had had the power to do so.

Dole now says that the chief executive already did have that power. The Supreme Court may or may not agree; the only way to find out is for a president to trigger a court case by vetoing a line item. Bush should do just that.