President's ability to nix spending limited: GAO

The Government Accountability Office on Monday issued a legal opinion that limits when the president can put a hold on federal spending.

Under the 1974 Impoundment Control Act (ICA), the president can ask Congress to rescind appropriated funds, which essentially cancels a previously-approved appropriation.

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A rescission request kicks off a 45-day period for Congress to decide whether or not to approve the president's request. During that time, the funds in question are usually put on hold.

When President TrumpDonald John TrumpCould Donald Trump and Boris Johnson be this generation's Reagan-Thatcher? Merkel backs Democratic congresswomen over Trump How China's currency manipulation cheats America on trade MORE initiated the first rescissions request since the Clinton administration this year, congressional budget-writers were concerned he would use a loophole to cancel spending on his own by making the rescissions request during the last 45 days of the fiscal year.

In doing so, he could potentially stop an agency from spending any unspent funds at the end of the year by simply sending a letter to Congress.

But GAO said that move would not pass legal muster.

"We conclude that the ICA does not permit the impoundment of funds through their date of expiration," GAO wrote. "Amounts proposed for rescission must be made available for prudent obligation before the amounts expire, even where the 45-day period provided in the ICA approaches or spans the date on which funds would expire," the decision read.

House Budget Committee Chairman Steve WomackStephen (Steve) Allen WomackLawmakers pay tribute to late Justice Stevens Rubio asks White House to delay B Pentagon contract over Amazon concerns   New CBO report fuels fight over minimum wage MORE (R-Ark.) and ranking member John YarmuthJohn Allen YarmuthThe House Democrats who voted to kill impeachment effort House votes to kill impeachment effort against Trump The Hill's Morning Report - A raucous debate on race ends with Trump admonishment MORE (D-Ky.), who requested the GAO opinion in an October letter, welcomed the opinion.

“Funding decisions are some of the most important we make in Congress, and any backdoor attempts to usurp that authority are unacceptable,” said Yarmuth.

Womack pointed to Article I of the Constitution, which grants Congress the power of the purse.

“Today’s GAO opinion reaffirms that most essential responsibility,” he said.