WJ Editorial

Could Corps Funding Claw-Backs Happen?

The political press has been full of talk lately about “rescission,” a rarely-used budgetary procedure under which either Congress or the president could propose rescinding, or cutting, spending already authorized and passed in a bill.

Under the 1974 Budget Act, the president may submit rescission requests to Congress that require simple majority-vote approvals in both houses of Congress within 45 days.  If Congress fails to act within the 45-day window, the request is disallowed and the president cannot seek rescission authority for the same funds again. Because of these procedural barriers, rescissions rarely happen. A rescission request is filibuster-proof, presumably under the assumption that any such request would have good justification and require quick action.

According to figures provided by the Government Accountability Office (GAO), a spending watchdog established by Congress, presidents have proposed 1,178 rescissions since 1974, totaling $76,022,349,690 in preciously authorized spending. Of these, Congress has accepted 461, totaling $25,006,704,717.

Presidents can use rescission requests either to make better use of unspent money, or to target programs they didn’t ask for or don’t want by refusing to spend money appropriated for them. Rescissions have often been compared to an after-the fact line-item veto. That was how Ronald Reagan saw them, and how he used them while he urged Congress to give him the line-item veto he had enjoyed as governor of California.

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In a 1992 report, the GAO recorded that Congress had, up to then, approved 35 percent of proposed presidential rescissions and 31 percent of proposed rescinded budget authority. That report noted one reason why there was resistance to greater use of rescissions: “enhanced presidential rescission authority could transfer too much power to the executive branch by expanding presidential veto power and forcing Congress to reintroduce any proposed budget authority proposals.”

The Supreme Court apparently shared that concern.  When Congress gave Bill Clinton a line-item veto, the Supreme Court quickly ruled that it was an unconstitutional infringement on Congress’ power of the purse. The rescission process has not been used since FY 2000.

So why are rescissions suddenly being talked about so much now? Ever since they passed the $1.3 trillion omnibus bill, which funds the government only through September, Republicans in Congress have been getting serious blow-back from their base about the amount. President Trump himself complained about it both before and after he signed it. They are worried about repercussions at the ballot box in November.

The omnibus bill funded the Corps of Engineers at $6.83 billion, up by $789 million from fiscal year 2017 funding. In the run-up to the omnibus bill, the Trump administration had proposed cutting Corps spending back to just over $5 billion and had raised the possibility of waterways tolls.

Is there any chance that the rescission process might be used to claw back any of that spending? We sincerely hope not.

Some critics of the rescission process have pointed out that it undermines the deliberative process in Congress. If appropriated funds are able to be clawed back later, for whatever reason, why should the parties to the agreement go to all the trouble of negotiating them in the first place?

Let Congress stand by the budget it passed.