White House proposal is arrogant

Recently, President Obama joined many of his predecessors in submitting legislation to the Congress which would grant the president with an expedited rescission authority.

The legislation, the “Reduce Unnecessary Spending Act,” would establish expedited procedures for the Congress to consider the president’s rescission proposals for discretionary and mandatory spending items, meaning that no rescission proposals other than the president’s would benefit from those expedited procedures. 

This is an arrogant proposal.  It would prohibit any amendments by the Congress and require a vote by a date certain. The underlying assumption is that if the president does not request funding for an item, that funding is wasteful spending. Such a procedure would allow the president to dictate the legislative agenda and manipulate such authority for political purposes, possibly unrelated to fiscal discipline. Congress should never hand such power to any president. 

I have served alongside twelve presidents representing both political parties. All twelve have asked for line-item veto authority, and I cheered as the Senate said “no” to all but one. And when the U.S. Senate erred in yielding to a president’s request for line-item veto power, the U.S. Supreme Court wisely nullified the Senate’s actions. 

After President Clinton signed the Line-Item Veto Act of 1996, I joined with U.S. Senators Carl Levin and Daniel Patrick Moynihan in bringing suit in Federal court against the Director of the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), then Franklin Raines, arguing that the act authorized the president to cancel spending and revenue measures without observing the procedures outlined in the Presentment Clause of Article I, Section 7 of the Constitution. That suit, Raines v. Byrd, was dismissed by the U.S. Supreme Court for lack of standing, but the arguments were later validated in 1998 when the Court nullified the Line-Item Veto Act in Clinton v. City of New York.

 The U.S. Constitution is explicit and precise about the role of the president in the legislative process. Article I, Section 7 reads: “Every Bill...shall, before it becomes a Law, be presented to the President of the United States; If he approve he shall sign it, but if not he shall return it....” 

Expedited rescission authority would create a third option for the president. He could sign a spending bill into law and then strip the provisions he did not like. The president alone would have that authority. He alone would dictate the rescission packages that the Congress must consider under expedited procedures, and the Congress would have to lamely submit — voting to accept or reject the president’s proposals, without change.

Expedited rescissions would subject every member — and the interests of their constituents and states — to the political, capricious, and unchecked whims of the White House. The president would be empowered to unravel delicately crafted legislative compromises. He could cut spending items for certain lawmakers that he wanted to influence, or make promises not to target them, using this new authority to intimidate or reward members of Congress. Every debate between the Congress and the White House could be subjugated to this new power of the president to directly influence senators. Think of the way this power could be abused in the days and weeks before an election.

The Congress can balance the budget, as it has done in the past, without altering the Constitution or disrupting the balance of powers between the Legislative and Executive branches, which the expedited rescission authority would certainly do.

But, budget process reform legislation is never a substitute for real deficit reduction. In the eight years that President Bush was in office, he did not submit a single rescission proposal to the Congress. In the sixteen months that President Obama has been in office, he has not submitted a single rescission proposal to the Congress. During that nine-year period, Congress enacted rescissions totaling more than $90 billion. It is the Congress that has proven that it can use the existing rescission authority to enact significant savings. The Congress should not fall prey to the false promise of a budget process reform that would shift the balance of power toward the president. 

Our Founding Fathers placed the power of the purse and the authority to write legislation in the Congress, in order to provide a check on the power of the Executive. By handing our constitutional responsibilities to the president, Congress would surrender the people’s control of the purse strings, and, with it, their most significant check on a president. 

Let us work together to find a better way to balance the budget and control waste. There is no need to erode the people’s most potent check on their government.  

Sen. Byrd is a senior member of the Appropriations Committee and the President Pro Tempore of the U.S. Senate.