At the end of a year in which the White House budget office began proposing cancellations of appropriated spending (rescissions), the Government Accountability Office has weighed in with a first-of-its-kind legal opinion protecting Congress’s powers of the purse when it comes to timing.
The legal advisory released on Tuesday by GAO reviews the Nixon-era 1974 Impoundment Control Act, which allows the president to propose to rescind funding previously approved by Congress. Congress is required to be allowed 45 days to consider the request, and if lawmakers do not act to support the rescissions during that window, the request is denied.
GAO General Counsel Thomas Armstrong called the president’s powers in this area “strictly limited,” noting that the president may withhold agency spending authority on specified items “for a limited time period during which Congress may avail itself of expedited procedures to consider the proposal.”
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However, GAO’s reading of the act’s legislative history and Supreme Court case law “and the overarching constitutional framework of legislative and executive powers provide no basis to construe the ICA as a mechanism by which the president may, in effect, unilaterally shorten the availability of budget authority by transmitting rescission proposals shortly before amounts are due to expire,” the watchdog stated. “To dedicate such broad authority to the president would have required affirmative congressional action in legislation, not congressional silence.”
The opinion was requested in late October by House Budget Committee Chairman Steve Womack, R-Ark., and Ranking Member John Yarmuth, D-Ky., who on Tuesday hailed the ruling.
“Article I grants the power of the purse to Congress,” Womack said in a statement. “Today’s GAO opinion reaffirms that most essential responsibility.”
Added Yarmuth, “Today’s legal opinion is an important confirmation that the power of the purse lies with the people’s representatives in Congress. Funding decisions are some of the most important we make in Congress, and any backdoor attempts to usurp that authority are unacceptable.”
Trump had proposed cancelling $15 billion in agency spending. The House in June narrowly approved the rescissions package —a rarity not used since the Clinton administration—but the Senate rejected it.