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A Do-Over on the Omnibus Spending Disaster?

The recent omnibus spending bill was a betrayal of the fiscal discipline rhetoric constantly thrown around by congressional Republicans and by President Trump, with final spending totals exceeding amounts originally requested by the House, Senate and the president.  Fortunately, there is a way they can scale back their spending spree and perhaps regain a little fiscal-conservative street cred.

And they need to, because the omnibus spending bill threw off any pretense of compromise, negotiation, or “making tough choices.” Instead, if the House wanted to spend $5 billion and the Senate wanted to spend $7 billion, they mutually agree to spend $10 billion. That’s some Art of the Deal.

The result was spending levels in the omnibus actually exceeding those proposed in President Obama’s big-spending budgets. NASA received $1.6 billion more than it requested. And in a much-publicized example, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos tried to live up to conservative and Trump administration rhetoric by cutting the Department of Education’s budget by $3.6 billion, but the omnibus spending bill actually increased education funding by $3.9 billion—a $7.5 billion difference between the department’s own request and what Congress spent.

Voters could reasonably conclude that neither the Trump administration nor Republicans in Congress have any intention of reining in spending, restraining the growth of the federal government, or even nodding their heads in the direction of fiscal discipline. And the damage to the Republican brand could be massive.

Scrambling for an excuse, Republicans blamed the Senate’s filibuster rules for putting a gun to their heads and forcing them to spend more money than they wanted. But fortunately, another legislative device could give Republicans a much-needed do-over that might restore at least some credibility with their base heading up to an already challenging midterm election.

One of the results of the Watergate scandal was that the Democratic-controlled Congress took from a weakened President Nixon the ability to impound funds—the discretion of the executive to simply not spend money that had been appropriated by Congress. President Clinton was able to temporarily use a line-item veto towards the same end until the Supreme Court declared it unconstitutional.

But the Impoundment Control Act of 1974 remains on the books. It allows a president to impound specific appropriations so long as Congress agrees within 45 days.

But why would Congress agree to cuts in spending that it just approved a few weeks earlier? Because the Impoundment Control Act requires only a majority vote in both the House and Senate, rather than the filibuster-proof 60 vote threshold in the Senate that seems to hold every legislative effort hostage. So 51 senators could approve substantial cuts to the same omnibus spending bill that required 60 votes for passage.

Democrats will, of course, cry foul and demand that the process is illegitimate. Which is a bit rich, since it was Democrats who drove through the Impoundment Control Act of 1974 in the first place.

Ultimately the filibuster should be revised so that it can be used to slow, but not kill, consideration of legislation before the Senate. In the meantime, aggressive use of the Impoundment Control Act could restore some sanity to federal spending and create consensus toward revision of the filibuster rule.