Congress considers a new budgetary tool

By Max Cacas
Federal News Radio

Earlier this week, President Obama submitted legislation that would give him and his successors the authority to propose specific, individual cuts in spending bills. Now, lawmakers on Capitol Hill have begun considering that, and several other bills on the matter.

Yesterday’s hearing of the Senate Judiciary Committee’s Constitution Subcommittee was designed to review legal questions surrounding not only the President’s proposal, but also similar measures submitted by House and Senate lawmakers. Wisconsin Senator Russ Finegold (D.) chairs the subcommittee. He’s also co-author, along with Congressman Paul Ryan (R.-Wisc.), of one of the line-item veto proposals now pending on Capitol Hill.

The Senator from Delaware, Senator (Tom) Carper, has a proposal which he may wish to discuss. And there’s the President’s expedited recission or line-item veto proposal, that Senator Carper and I will be introducing shortly. The President’s approach has much of what Congressman Ryan and I have targeted, and what Senator Carper targets in his measure as well.

Doctor Jeffrey Liebman, the acting Deputy Director of the Office of Management and Budget, recapped for the panel how the President’s line item veto proposal would work.

  • Scope. Under this new authority, the President can propose fast-track consideration of rescissions of discretionary and non-entitlement mandatory spending. The President is limited to proposing changes that reduce funding levels and cannot use this authority to propose other changes in law, including new transfer authority, supplemental funding, or changes in authorizing legislation. The fast-track process is thus limited only to simple funding reductions, for which a straight up-or-down vote is desirable.
  • Proposing a rescission package. After enactment of funding, the President has 45 days during which Congress is in session (excluding weekends and national holidays) to decide whether to submit a rescission package using this expedited procedure. The President is also limited to a single package of rescissions per bill under this procedure, and the requested rescissions must be limited to provisions in that bill.
  • Congressional procedure. A rescission package submitted under this authority receives fast-track consideration in Congress. Debate is limited in both houses and the package is guaranteed an up-or-down vote without amendment. The package is first introduced and considered in the House and, if approved there, is taken up in the Senate. From the package’s introduction to its final vote in the Senate, the process can take no more than 25 days. Note that, while Congress cannot amend the package, our proposal enables Congress to omit from the bill any proposed rescission that it believes goes beyond the scope allowed.
  • Withholding funding. Following submission of a rescission request using this expedited procedure, the President may withhold funding for up to 25 days, after which the funding must be released. This ensures that agencies do not obligate funds before Congress has had an opportunity to consider the rescission package.

    In sum, the proposal provides the President with important, but limited, powers that will allow the President and Congress to work together more effectively to eliminate unnecessary spending including earmarks. Knowing this procedure exists may also discourage policymakers from enacting such spending in the first place.

During the question and answer session, Chairman Feingold queried Liebman on some of the finer points of the measure, namely the timing of the recission provision of the line-item veto bill, which could have bearing on how federal agencies spend money and do business. Feingold questioned the fact that the President’s proposal would give him 45 legislative days in which to submit a package of line-item cuts, which, given extended recess periods in the congressional calendar could translate into as much as three or more months. This, the chairman noted, compares with the 30 calendar days recission cut deadline in the version proposed by Rep. Ryan and himself.

Liebman explained that the President’s legislation mandates a quick submission of proposed recissions. However, he went on to testify, towards the end of the year, Congress tends to pass very large “omnibus” appropriations bills, often covering the operations of multiple federal agencies, and appearing at a time when the White House is preparing the next fiscal year’s budget.

“If one gets one of these huge bills, and we need the time to go through it, find out what’s in it, do the analysis of the policy, and figure out which things need recissions, we thought that 45 days was what was needed during that period.”

Liebman went on to tell Feingold that perhaps the proposal could be amended so that the 45 day deadline might pertain only to spending bills approved during December and January, and the Wisconsin Democrat appeared to be open to such a compromise.

For added perspective, Chairman Feingold invited noted constitutional attorney Charles Cooper, now with the Washington law firm of Cooper and Kirk to testify. In his prepared statement, Cooper says the proposed measure from the White House and those submitted by lawmakers, are drawn to legally address constitutional concerns raised by the Supreme Court in overturning the 1996 line-item veto law.

The Reduce Unnecessary Spending Act and S.524 are framed in careful obedience to Article I, Section 7 and to the Supreme Court’s teaching in Clinton. The President is not authorized by the bill to “cancel” any spending or tax provision, or otherwise to prevent such a provision “from having legal force or effect.” To the contrary, the purpose of the proposed measures is simply to provide a fast-track procedure to require the Congress to vote up-or-down on rescissions proposed by the President. Thus, any spending or tax provision duly enacted into law remains in full force and effect under the bill unless and until it is repealed in accordance with the Article I, Section 7 process — a bicameral passage and presentment to the President.

At this point, there is no word on what next steps are in store for the line-item veto proposal.


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