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Trump says he’ll restore presidential impoundment authority

Former president unsuccessfully tried to get Congress to cancel spending; later impeached over Ukraine aid holdup

Then-President Donald Trump, flanked from left by Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyo., Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., and then-Vice President Mike Pence, speaks to reporters in the Capitol on Jan. 9, 2018.
Then-President Donald Trump, flanked from left by Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyo., Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., and then-Vice President Mike Pence, speaks to reporters in the Capitol on Jan. 9, 2018. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

Former President Donald Trump vowed Tuesday to roll back the impoundment provisions of the landmark 1974 budget law in order to give presidents more power to withhold funds appropriated by Congress.

In a video, Trump said if he is reelected president, he “will do everything I can to challenge the Impoundment Control Act in court, and if necessary, get Congress to overturn it.”

“I will then use the president’s long-recognized impoundment power to squeeze the bloated federal bureaucracy for massive savings,” he said.

Trump said restoring impoundment power “is the only way we will ever return to a balanced budget.” And he said “bringing back impoundment will give us a crucial tool with which to obliterate the Deep State, Drain the Swamp, and starve the Warmongers — these people that want wars all over the place.”

The term impoundment means any action or inaction by a federal government officer or employee that blocks the expenditure or the obligation — a binding commitment to deliver the money in exchange for goods or services — of funding appropriated by Congress and signed into law. The 1974 budget law curtailed the executive branch’s power to withhold funds without congressional approval.

Trump’s campaign said if he is elected president, he would direct federal agencies to identify portions of their budgets “where massive savings are possible” through impoundment, while keeping the same level of funding for defense, Social Security and Medicare. 

Passage of the 1974 budget law was spurred by a fight between President Richard M. Nixon and Congress over Nixon’s use of impoundment. In an effort to restrain spending, Nixon held back $40 billion in appropriations in his first four years in office.

In a statement, Trump said that ever since Thomas Jefferson was president, “it was undisputed that the president had the constitutional power to stop unnecessary spending” through impoundment.

Trump laid out a rationale for returning impoundment authority to a president, saying it would reestablish the balance of power between the legislative and executive branches.

In the statement, his campaign said while Congress has the power to appropriate funds, “inherent within the president’s power to execute the law is a measure of discretion on how funds are spent, because spending decisions often depend on how laws are executed in practice.”

The campaign said restoring impoundment would give the president more clout in budget negotiations, leading to better control of federal spending.

Before Nixon’s fight over impoundment, other presidents of both parties tangled with Congress over the practice, including Harry S. Truman, Dwight D. Eisenhower and John F. Kennedy.

Under the 1974 law, a president can still withhold funds, but only through a temporary deferral that must meet certain requirements, or through a proposed rescission of funds that requires a special message to Congress which lawmakers must approve. The act of sending such a message to Congress puts the funding on hold for up to 45 days; if lawmakers don’t pass the rescissions bill, the money must be released.

In 2018 when Republicans controlled both chambers of Congress as well as the White House, Trump used existing impoundment authorities to try to cancel some $15 billion in previously appropriated funding. The rescissions measure narrowly passed the GOP House but fell short in the Senate

Impeachment saga

Trump later fought with Congress over withholding some $400 million in military assistance to Ukraine, leading to the first of two impeachments against him.

In 2019, the Office of Management and Budget used a process called apportionment to freeze the aid, which had been appropriated by Congress. The White House budget office typically uses apportionment to spread out spending throughout the year, but the procedure also can be used to temporarily delay spending.

The White House eventually released the Ukraine aid. And the Republican-controlled Senate acquitted Trump after an abbreviated trial. In an opinion, the Government Accountability Office said most of the frozen funds amounted to an illegal deferral that violated the impoundment law. Trump’s White House disputed the opinion.

The Ukraine incident led then-House Budget Chairman John Yarmuth, D-Ky., to introduce legislation to tighten restrictions on a president’s ability to put a hold on funds or shift spending to an emergency declared by a president. Certain provisions of that legislation, which require OMB to make apportionments publicly available, passed as part of the fiscal 2023 omnibus spending package.

As Trump was on his way out of office in January 2021, his OMB argued that Congress should amend the law to remove confusion and give the president more latitude to withhold funds. The officials said the law should be changed to allow the president to permit funds to lapse before they are spent “if Congress appropriates more money than what it costs to fully but efficiently execute government programs.”

Yarmuth, who retired after the last Congress, said he suspects “there is a mountain of legal arguments” against the president’s having impoundment power under current law.

And he said he doubts Congress would change the law unless Republicans had 60 votes in the Senate and controlled the House.

“I don’t think that it’s likely to go anywhere with anywhere near the current configuration” in Congress, he said.

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