The convoluted congressional budget process has few fans. But the 1974 legislation that created today’s system did have one virtue: It reined in Richard Nixon’s claims that the president could simply refuse to spend congressionally appropriated money by “impounding” funds whenever he felt like it, as Kevin Kosar explained in Politico:
Presidents since the founding had [refused to spend funds], including Lyndon Johnson. It seldom was a big deal, so long as the amounts were small, the rationales for impoundment were sound, and appropriators were consulted. Nixon, however, didn’t keep it small: He impounded tens of billions of dollars, often to gut programs he did not like. Gallingly, Caspar Weinberger, his deputy director of the Office of Management and Budget, told Congress the Constitution empowered the president to decide whether to spend money. All of which precipitated a constitutional crisis, since the Constitution gives Congress the power of the purse.
The 1974 Congressional Budget and Impoundment Control Act killed off the Nixonian abuse of impoundment, leaving future presidents with very limited power to cancel or delay funds appropriated by Congress. A besieged and distracted Tricky Dick signed the legislation shortly before the Watergate scandal forced his resignation.
But now, nearly a half-century later, Donald Trump wants to bring back impoundment in all its dictatorial glory, as RealClearPolitics explains:
Sources close to former President Trump say he has a plan for keeping Congress from ever again forcing him into “disgraceful” and “ridiculous” spending situations. If he returns to the White House, Trump will seek to resurrect authority that Congress stripped from the presidency almost a half-century ago.
What President Nixon squandered, his campaign promises, Trump will restore, namely the impoundment power.
So a second Trump administration would revive Nixon’s efforts to build an “imperial presidency.” Trump needs to be a fiscal dictator, he and his advisers suggest to RCP, if he is to slay the “deep state,” the bureaucratic enemies that supposedly sabotaged American greatness during his first term in office:
Impoundment, if restored, would allow a president, in theory, to simply refuse to spend appropriations by Congress. More than just an avenue to cut spending, Trump sees that kind of authority as key to starving, and thus crushing, the so-called “deep state.” …
[A]dvisors close to the former president tell RealClearPolitics they are drawing up plans to challenge the 1974 Congressional Budget and Impoundment Control Act in court, and if that fails, to lean on the legislature to repeal it.
The former president said he believes the 1974 law that gutted impoundment is unconstitutional, and if returned to the White House, would govern accordingly.
“Yes, there’s the effort to have it overturned in courts. Yes, there is the legislative effort, but when you think that a law is unconstitutional,” Vought told RCP, the administration ought to look “to do the bare minimum of what the courts have required,” and “to push the envelope.”
Translation: Trump will seek to use impoundment to kill off agencies that don’t suit his needs and fire personnel who won’t do his bidding, restoring to the presidency the powers that Nixon foolishly gave up (Vought calls the surrender on impoundment Nixon’s “original sin”).
Probably the best way to understand this is as the fiscal equivalent to Trump’s famous boast that the U.S. Constitution gives him total power. “I have an Article II, where I have to the right to do whatever I want as president,” he said in 2019, and on other occasions. But he may have a particular attachment to the impoundment theory since his efforts to withhold appropriated aid to Ukraine led to his first impeachment in 2019.
The former president’s broader claim that he needs to be able to screw over civil servants to save America (surely one object of his planned impoundments) has a big following among other Republicans, including his top 2024 rival, Ron DeSantis, who wants to abolish limits on a president’s power to purge top bureaucrats. At least Trump is honest in his contempt for both constitutional and statutory limits on his prerogatives. DeSantis claims he wants to “reconstitutionalize” the federal government, by which he means bend it to his own will. Nixon would be proud of his political and spiritual descendants.
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