Sen. Chris Van Hollen D-Md., said: "The Trump administration has blatantly disregarded the Constitution – and with it, Congress' power of the purse."

Sen. Chris Van Hollen D-Md., said: "The Trump administration has blatantly disregarded the Constitution – and with it, Congress' power of the purse." Jose Luis Magana/AP

Legislation Seeks to Increase Transparency and Strengthen Congress’ Role in Federal Spending

Both parties have “encroached on the power of the purse,” said one senator, but “this has been acutely true under this administration.”

Senate Democrats on Wednesday introduced legislation designed to increase transparency of the executive branch’s spending actions.

Eighteen senators (17 Democratic and one independent) unveiled the “Congressional Power of the Purse Act.” This follows the Government Accountability Office’s report in January that the Trump administration violated the law by withholding security aid to Ukraine for policy reasons last summer. The Ukraine aid was central to the House’s articles of impeachment against President Trump for abuse of power and obstruction of Congress. Three House committee chairs introduced a version of the bill on April 28.  

“The Trump administration has blatantly disregarded the Constitution – and with it, Congress’ power of the purse,” said Sen. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md. “This legislation would restore that power and put real transparency and accountability measures on the spending actions of this, and future administrations.” Van Hollen published a letter by then-White House Counsel Brian Miller to GAO on Dec. 20 denying the congressional watchdog’s request for information during its probe of the administration’s handling of Ukraine aid.

If enacted the bill would have three main functions: strengthen Congress’ role in budget decisions, increase transparency of the executive branch and bolster enforcement of budget laws. Some of the specific provisions are:

  • Direct the Office of Management and Budget to publish apportionments (OMB-approved plans for how to allocate budget resources) and the positions of officials involved. 
  • Require OMB “to release funding to the agency for obligation at least 90 days before it expires, whether or not the funding is part of a presidential rescission or deferral proposal.”
  • Require the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel to publish its opinions that instruct federal agencies on appropriations and the budget. 
  • Mandate that the executive branch explain publicly how much it cancels in planned spending and why.
  • Strengthen GAO’s ability to get information from agencies on their compliance with budget and appropriations law as well as accelerate its ability to sue to compel agencies to release funds, if necessary 
  • Allow administrative discipline (such as suspension without pay or termination) for those who violate the Impoundment Control Act, which prevents the executive branch from withholding funds for policy reasons and outlines a process if it seeks to delays funds appropriated by Congress. 

President Trump asked Ukraine President Vlodymyr Zelensky “to do us a favor” when the topic of funding arose in a July 25 phone call. The White House eventually released the funds before the fiscal year ended on Sept. 30. In October, former OMB officials told Government Executive that the administration's handling of the aid was “unconventional” and “unusual” but not illegal. Then GAO determined in January that OMB violated the Impoundment Control Act by withholding approximately $214 million in Defense Department funds. GAO confirmed on Thursday it is still reviewing a potential impoundment of about $168 million in State Department funds.

Although the president can withhold funds before the end of the fiscal year temporarily, he or she must give Congress a detailed justification, GAO said in the report. “OMB did not identify—in either the apportionment schedules themselves or in its response to us—any contingencies as recognized by the [Impoundment Control Act], savings or efficiencies that would result from a withholding, or any law specifically authorizing the withholding,” said the report. “OMB described the withholding as necessary to ensure that the funds were not spent ‘in a manner that could conflict with the president’s foreign policy.’ ” 

On Wednesday, during a confirmation hearing to be permanent OMB director, Russell Vought ––currently serving in an acting capacity–– made various pledges to increase transparency and said he will work with GAO and Congress on investigations. However, he repeated the administration’s disagreement with GAO's finding on OMB's Impoundment  Control Act violation. 

Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., ranking member of the Senate Appropriations Committee, said Congress expects presidential administrations to be transparent and uphold appropriations laws with their spending. While presidents from both parties have “encroached on the power of the purse as they have tried to expand their budgetary powers,” over the years, he said, “this has been acutely true under this administration.”