Making Congress Responsible Again

The power of the purse is not only Congress’ greatest power, but also its most essential duty. Yet Congress hasn’t produced a regular budget in over a decade. Now, weeks after the April 15 deadline to produce an official federal budget, the House shows no sign of activity.

Can anything push Congress to uphold its constitutional responsibilities?

One answer, as it turns out, may be President Donald Trump. This week the president requested that Congress — in what promises to be the first of several such requests — cut $15 billion in government spending, taking advantage of an esoteric budget process that hasn’t been used in almost two decades.

This all-but-forgotten process, known as a rescission, was created by Congress as part of the Congressional Budget and Impoundment Control Act of 1974. During the 1970s, Congress began to wake up to the fact that it had relinquished much of its “power of the purse” to the executive branch and administrative agencies by allowing the rampant growth of the administrative state. The legislation, recognized for creating the House and Senate Budget Committees and the Congressional Budget Office, was a key step towards Congress reclaiming its budget authority.

A lesser-known provision of the act allows the president to request “rescissions,” or cancellations of appropriations previously approved by Congress. To ensure congressional control of the budget while encouraging executive input, proposed rescissions must be approved by both chambers of Congress within 45 legislative days.  Here’s an interesting catch: That approval can be done by a simple majority vote.

Rescission is an opportunity for the executive and legislative branches to correct federal budget wastage in a legislatively accountable and constitutionally appropriate way. During the 44 years the process has existed, presidents have proposed 1,178 rescissions, coming to a combined total of over $76 billion, and Congress has accepted 461 rescissions amounting to roughly $25 billion. The last president to use the rescission  process was none other than Bill Clinton, who proposed $6.7 billion, two-thirds of which were accepted by Congress.

But, of course, none of this will come to pass if Congress refuses to cooperate with Trump. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell — who initially rejected the proposal, saying that it undermines both the bipartisan budget deal that was struck in March and the Republicans’ future bargaining power — says he is “willing to discuss” a proposal.

“Whether that’s achievable is another matter,” McConnell added.

The House shows signs of being more agreeable, with House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy supporting the idea of rescissions, and pointing out that such budget cuts could be found in past allocations. The House Republican Study Committee has also just published its own fiscal 2019 budget plan  that includes cuts far beyond Trump’s expected rescissions. While the RSC budget is unlikely to get a vote on the House floor, the plan indicates that at least part of the Republican caucus is mindful of its fiscal obligations.

The politics of this are tricky, and Office of Management and Budget Director Mick Mulvaney will have his work cut out for him as he advocates for the cuts. Given the successful record of past rescissions, however, Congress would be negligent to ignore the request completely.

Of course, there is always the danger that, if the proposed rescissions aren’t strategic or involve politically sensitive cuts, Republicans will vote against their own rescission bill and thus end up providing extra ammunition for Democrats’ campaigns. Conversely, however, it could help Republicans with seats at stake in the midterm elections: Even if no rescission bill is passed, those who vote in favor of it will be able to prove that the GOP is still the party of fiscal responsibility.

Regardless of the degree of success, Trump now has a real opportunity, not for some executive power grab, but to compel Congress to take seriously its constitutional power of the purse. That would be a small victory – not only for America’s fiscal health, but for constitutional government as well.

Matthew Spalding is associate vice president and dean of educational programs for Hillsdale College in Washington, D.C., where he is the Allan P. Kirby, Jr. Chair in Constitutional Studies. 

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