Following the announcement of the budget proposed by the Trump administration, there has been a hue-and-cry from all sectors, particularly regarding the cuts for programs like “Meals on Wheel’s” and The National Endowment for the Arts. Trump plans to pay for his wall by cutting funds to the State Department and foreign aid.
For anyone with even a rudimentary knowledge of the Constitution (which would exclude Trump and most of his senior advisors) any spending by the U.S. government must be approved by Congress, in particular by the House of Representatives.
It is laid out specifically in Article 1, Section 7:
- All Bills for raising Revenue shall originate in the House of Representatives; but the Senate may propose or concur with Amendments as on other bills.
As Republication Congressman Justin Amash reminded us
A lot of good, some bad, and much unaddressed in the president's budget—but all relatively meaningless. Congress, not the WH, appropriates.
— Justin Amash (@justinamash) March 17, 2017
Revenue-generating legislation is assigned to the House Ways and Means Committee, currently chaired by Representative Kevin Brady (R. Texas). It is their job to “mark up” or make necessary changes to this legislation. Many may recall that this was the committee the current Speaker of the House Paul Ryan chaired before he became speaker. It is probably the most powerful committee in the House, which explains Ryan’s initial reluctance to give it up to become Speaker.
For generations, members of Congress would propose, and frequently get, amendments to appropriations bills for their own pet projects. As the President can only approve or veto any bill in totality, this led to much of what is called pork barrel spending. The House Rules Committee has instituted rules to prohibit such amendments by requiring that any “Amendments to general appropriation bills much comply with numerous requirements in the Rules of the House and the Budget Act.
Some, but not all of the requirements are listed below:
- May not be offered if the amendment is drafted to a point in the bill that has already been read. [emphasis by committee] This is significant because a bill is first read after being introduced on the floor of the House and before it is assigned to the Ways and Means Committee.
- Must be germane to both the bill and the paragraph being amend. [emphasis added by committee] This means no pet projects can be tacked onto the appropriations legislation.
Naturally, there are some congressmen who are not happy with these restrictions, including the afore-mentioned Republican Congressman Justin Amash
When I came to Congress, any representative could amend a spending bill on the House floor. Today, no amdts are allowed. Congress is broken.
— Justin Amash (@justinamash) March 8, 2017
Trump can propose spending cuts across the board, as described above. But the House can vote to include funds for these programs in their appropriations bill. The next question then becomes – if the House votes for funding, say, Meals on Wheels, does the President have to spend the money?
This is a question that dates back to Thomas Jefferson’s presidency. Known as “impoundment” it was another controversy of the Nixon administration until it became overshadowed by the Watergate scandal. At this point, it is pure speculation, as the House may well give Trump everything he asks for in his budget.
As it becomes more apparent every day that the Republican healthcare legislation, in its current form, is dead on arrival, it is critical for Trump’s viability as President to successfully negotiate his budget proposals through Congress. The key word here is “negotiate.” Although Trump declares himself the greatest negotiator of all time, he has never had to deal with a group of 538 politicians before. Politicians who do not owe their jobs to him, but to their constituents back home. As a negotiator, he is definitely not in the same league as Lyndon Johnson, who was one of the most successful presidents in getting Congress to do his bidding.
Threatening to “primary” fellow Republicans who do not support him may cow some members into acceding to his budget requests, but it is equally likely to anger others. Trump has used threats, usually lawsuits, all his life to get his way, but in this case “The Art of the Deal” is just not going to work. The Democrats will simply laugh in his face and do everything in their power to thwart his proposals. Much like the Republicans did during the Obama administration. And despite what many of his supporters might think, he cannot fire Paul Ryan.
Trump’s threats to impose import tariffs up to 35% on businesses that move out of the United States are equally empty. The President cannot impose tariffs. It is a revenue-generating move, and therefore, as defined in the Constitution, only the House of Representatives can propose any form of tariff.
As Trump and his administration continue in the Apprentice phase of governing the country, they are going to learn that they must play well with others in order to have any hope of enacting their agenda.