Bush Fails to Ask for Budget Rescissions

When ABC White House Correspondent Terry Moran prefaced his question at this week’s presidential press conference by noting that President Bush had “presided over the largest increase in the size, the power, and the cost of the federal government since Lyndon Baines Johnson,” the President did not dispute that. Instead, he ticked off the general spending cuts he is urging Congress to make to pay for Hurricane Katrina relief, including rolling back non-security discretionary spending and eliminating or streamlining more than 150 government programs.

But the President did not mention one arrow in his budget-cutting quiver that he has never used—namely, the power to suggest that funds already authorized by Congress be rescinded. As the Wall Street Journal noted September 27, the rescission authority allows the President to send Congress of list of projects he does not want to spend money on. Congress then casts an up-or-down vote on whether to accept the spending cuts. The Journal pointed out that since the law providing for rescissions was enacted in 1974, every President except Bush has used it.

President Ronald Reagan, for example, asked for $43 million in rescissions from Congress. Until Bush, President Jimmy Carter held the distinction for requesting the smallest amount, which was $4.6 million.

“Rescissions worked pretty well through the Nixon Administration,” Jim Miller, who served in the budget office under Richard Nixon and headed Reagan’s Office of Management and Budget, told me. “Up to 1974, a President could simply say if he didn’t like something Congress had appropriated money for, he was going to impound it and not spend it. But the courts eventually ruled impoundment unconstitutional and Congress passed legislation [the Impoundment Control Act of 1974] providing for requests from the President to Congress to de-authorize appropriations and then the up-or-down vote from Congress.” Miller added that rescissions affect only discretionary spending.

Days after he stepped down as majority leader, Rep. Tom DeLay (R.-Tex.) told me his Republican colleagues were to have a closed-door meeting to talk about where to cut spending in the budget “and rescissions are part of the discussion.” DeLay noted that, so far, administration officials have not presented a rescission request to Congress.

I asked White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan why there have been no requests for rescissions. He did not answer directly, saying instead, “We’re continuing to talk with members of Congress about how to move forward, and I think you’ll continue to hear from the President about ways that we can cut unnecessary spending.”