AMAC Exclusive – By Ben Solis
As Congress returns from August recess, Republican and Democrat leaders in the House and Senate are gearing up to continue blowing out the budget by passing a Continuing Resolution. With GOP leadership punting once again on delivering on its promises to rein in out-of-control spending, the need for the restoration of the president’s Impoundment Power – which Donald Trump has promised to push if he is re-elected – is clearer than ever.
With less than a month until the end of the Fiscal Year on September 30, Congress has made virtually no progress on a full budget to fund the government. That means that, barring a successful effort by the conservative House Freedom Caucus to force changes, spending will continue for all government programs at current levels until at least mid-November – when Congress will likely face another impasse.
In other words, despite Republicans winning back control of the House of Representatives last year, money for all of Democrats’ left-wing spending priorities will continue pouring in until near the end of the year at a minimum.
After Republican candidates promised to put a stop to exactly this type of spending during campaign season last year, many conservatives likely now find themselves asking what other methods are available to stop their tax dollars from funding the left’s political agenda.
Trump, who continues to hold a dominant lead in the 2024 GOP primary, offered one possible answer earlier this summer – bringing back the Impoundment Power.
In short, the Impoundment Power, which was used by presidents at least as far back as Thomas Jefferson, who refused to use appropriated funds to buy unnecessary gunboats, allows the president to spend less than Congress allocates on certain projects if he deems the full funding amount unnecessary.
In 1974, Congress passed the Impoundment Control Act, greatly constraining the president’s Impoundment Power.
In a June video, Trump pledged to “do everything I can to challenge the Impoundment Control Act in court, and if necessary, get Congress to overturn it.”
Restoring the Impoundment Power “is the only way we will ever return to a balanced budget,” Trump said. “Bringing back impoundment will give us a crucial tool with which to obliterate the Deep State, Drain the Swamp, and starve the Warmongers.”
As Trump suggested, the president’s Impoundment Power has a long record of use throughout American history. Following the Civil War, with Congress fragmented as the country healed from four years of bloody conflict, several presidents used the Impoundment Power to guard the nation’s purse from ill-formed spending plans.
At the beginning of the 20th century, the avalanche of spending related to the Spanish-American War, the Panama Canal, and major infrastructure projects created huge budget deficits which Congress tried to solve through the Antideficiency Act of 1905 and the Accounting Act of 1921. In both cases, Congress acknowledged that certain conditions might arise which would necessitate the exercise of the presidential Impoundment Power. Congressman John F. Fitzgerald, who worked on both bills, wrote in a 1919 article discussing the merits of Impoundment that “to uphold the priority of the expenditure and address the emergency, the will of the president shall be supreme.”
After the Wall Street crash in 1929, President Hoover acted upon this authority, cutting government bureaucracy by 30 percent, reducing compensation for public employees by 10 percent, and consolidating 58 government agencies.
Invoking the same powers in 1941, his successor, Franklin D. Roosevelt, reduced all economic and social spending funding to only “programs having important defense value.”
After World War II, American presidents, both Republican and Democrat, used the Impoundment Power extensively to restrict funding for programs that included certain Air Force projects, flood control initiatives, highways, railroads, missile defense, and land conservation. President Truman impounded $735 million in defense expenditures, explaining to Congress that he intended to defend the nation without imposing a significant burden on the American people. Among the canceled programs was the giant aircraft carrier USS United States.
Perhaps the greatest champion of the Impoundment Power was President Eisenhower, a former Chief of Staff of the Army and the first Supreme Allied Commander in Europe. Former Secretary of the Air Force Thomas C. Reed told this author that President Eisenhower understood that “U.S. economic power was decisive for victory in World War II,” and understood which defense projects were a waste.
In one instance Reed shared, Eisenhower impounded funds for the development of a 300-ton nuclear-powered bomber that Air Force leaders compared to an airborne submarine. “President Eisenhower knew that its failures outweighed potential benefits,” Reed explained.
Instead, Eisenhower returned funds to Congress, saying that American economic growth via tax cuts and reduced spending was the best national security policy.
In the 1960s, President Johnson impounded funds for several programs as inflation began to creep upward, arguing that changing conditions had necessitated a change in spending. Johnson ordered agencies to save $1.5 billion and demanded Congress cut spending by $3 billion. Like Trump has promised to do, Johnson used Impoundment as an anti-inflationary measure.
Although there was vigorous political debate over the wisdom of all of these moves, it was generally accepted that the president had the power to allocate funds as he saw fit.
Caspar Weinberger, the Director of the Office of Management and Budget under President Nixon and Secretary of Defense under Ronald Reagan, once compared the Impoundment Power to handling large flows of water through hundreds of pipes connected to one tank. The tank represented all appropriated funds, while the pipes represented various federal projects. “With the Impoundment Power, the president can close or open these pipes according to what conditions exist,” he said.
But in 1974, with the passage of the Impoundment Control Act, this important presidential authority was stripped away. The result has been ever-increasing budgets and deficits with no way to check Congress’s excesses. This dynamic is on full display now as the Republican-controlled House and Democrat-controlled Senate move to continue spending exorbitant sums despite partisan divisions.
Weinberger once told this author unequivocally before he passed away in 2006, “Someone should restore this powerful instrument [Impoundment] based on the interpretation that originated with Jefferson.” He further pointed to the erosion of the president’s authority to execute the laws in accordance with the Constitution following passage of the Impoundment Control Act.
If inflation creeps back up and the economy continues to struggle heading into 2024, government spending could become a major issue. By clearly outlining how he would use Impoundment to address the problem, Trump is positioned better than any other candidate to show leadership on the issue.
Ben Solis is the pen name of an international affairs journalist, historian, and researcher.