Debate on the Budget and Impoundment Control Act

As the members of Congress indicated during the debates, there was almost unanimous support in Congress for the act in spite of the fact that it would take power back from a Republican president. Why would this be the case? How did the members of Congress talk about their roles in the constitutional system and in the breakdown of the separation of powers?
How do the concerns of the members of Congress in these debates mirror those of Sen. Ben Sasse several decades later? How and why did the debates in 1973–1974 turn out differently, reducing the power of the president, compared to those in 2015 and afterward? How have the changes in circumstances led to a stronger presidency compared to the one envisioned by Madison in The Federalist?

No related resources


During the 1960s and 1970s many Americans, especially critics of the Vietnam War and political opponents of Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon, began to question the vast powers that the presidency had assumed throughout the twentieth century. The Watergate scandal and the Nixon presidency in general proved to be a catalyst for opponents of a strong presidency. Prize-winning historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr.—once a great defender of presidential power—published an influential book in 1973 titled The Imperial Presidency giving his views on the subject. In addition to overriding the president’s veto of the War Powers Resolution, which sought to reclaim Congress’ war powers, Congress also enacted the Budget and Impoundment Control Act over President Nixon’s veto in an attempt to reassert Congress’ power over the purse. The practice of “impoundments,” in which Congress appropriated money for certain purposes but the president then refused to spend it, was especially concerning to congressmembers.

In these debates over the act, members lamented the decline of Congress in relation to the presidency and reasserted their special status as the true representatives of the American people. Restoring Congress’ control over spending, they claimed, would ensure the restoration of accountability in how the national government spent money. The 1974 act was a landmark measure that transformed the budget process. Prior to 1974, the president both proposed the federal budget and controlled most of the resources for studying the budget through the Office of Management and Budget (OMB). The act restored a budget process led by Congress rather than the president and established budget committees in both houses, as well as a Congressional Budget Office (CBO) that gave members of Congress an independent source of expertise on budget matters.

—J. David Alvis and Joseph Postell

Congressional Record, April 18, 1973, 13166.

April 18, 1973

Mr. Mezvinsky.1 Mr. Speaker,2 members of the House Freshman Democratic caucus have requested the floor in order to discuss what we consider the critical need for Congress to assert its budgetary authority.

We realize that we plan to use an unusually long period of time, but we believe that our subject both necessitates and justifies it. As new members, we are the latest product of the grassroots. And we can offer a fresh insight into the problems which confront us.

I think it is clear that there is a growing imbalance of power between the Congress and the executive—and Congress is definitely getting the short end of the stick.

This is the result of the major offensive by the White House to take away our powers as well as a default on the part of Congress. The president has taken advantage of Congress by firmly stepping into the vacuum created by Congress’ inability to exercise its authority.

Our debate this afternoon, and into the evening, will focus on the budget because it represents the most glaring example of this problem.

Our hope is that by speaking out, we will be able to prompt our colleagues here in the House, and in the other chamber, to join with us in a unified effort to make Congress rear up and take the offensive so it can plan [play?] its dynamic role in our government.

I believe it is imperative that we act immediately to improve Congress to enable it to demonstrate that Congress can truly, effectively, and responsibly represent the public’s voice in government. . . .

We must demand, both of ourselves and from the executive branch, that Congress exercise its prerogatives over spending priorities.

And I think we have made a strong beginning toward this goal. Our joint study committee on budget control has unanimously endorsed the creation of a special budget committee in each chamber.

We now need to dedicate our support to these committees and provide them the necessary resources to do their job effectively and enhance congressional budgetary control.

Making Congress as able as we are willing—to handle the budget—will be a long step toward solving another serious problem which confronts us and weakens Congress in the public eye. That is the inaccessibility of the president.

We, in Congress, are supposed to be our constituents’ closest link with the government. We are supposed to listen to our home districts and bring their message to the federal government—but somehow the message lies dormant in Congress. We cannot get through to the White House.

So far this session, the president has effectively ignored our existence.

We have been here for four months, and he is [has?] not yet felt inclined to come to the Hill and address us personally.

And the first months of this new session have shown our actions have little or no effect on his.

He has surrounded himself with the White House whiz kids—like Haldeman, Ehrlichman, Dean, and Ash3—whose influence on the direction of the government is much greater than that of the 225 million people we represent.

These whiz kids are the ones with access to the president, not Congress.

The president follows their advice, not congressional directives, on what federal programs to carry out, which to cut back, and which to abolish. The most dangerous aspect of this situation is that none of the whiz kids are accountable to Congress or the public.

The longer Congress allows itself to be ignored by the White House, the greater the danger that the public will be mesmerized into believing that Congress’ role is supposed to be no more than that of a debating society.

If as the people’s branch, we cannot have an impact, then who are the people to turn to? As long as Congress is ignored, so are the people.

This is why we have got to rear up and take the offensive in order to return the power of decision to the hands of the people.

We must assert our authority and make Congress more of a force to be reckoned with than the president’s friends.

To be successful, we must challenge the frighteningly broad interpretation of executive privilege4 that shields the whiz kids from our questions. . . .

Mr. O’Neill.5 Mr. Speaker, will the gentleman yield?

Mr. Mezvinsky. I am glad to yield to the distinguished majority leader.

Mr. O’Neill. . . . Nixon’s demand for a formal budget ceiling and his unfair and derogatory remarks about a big spending Congress are designed to conceal his real motive, which is seizing full control of the policymaking authority.

The truth of the matter is that when the president of the United States speaks out, whether he is on television or in a press conference, he gets the front page of every paper in the world. But when we, the leadership in the House, try to respond, we are fortunate if we get two or three lines on a back page.

I believe it is of great significance what the freshmen Democratic members are saying here today, in trying to bring this to the public.

What is the president doing? He says that the Congress must fund everything in his budget, including the $13 billion deficit. The American people do not realize that the budget which has been sent to the Congress of the United States has a $13 billion deficit. The way Mr. Nixon talks, one would think this was a wild-spending Congress. It is the manner in which this administration has handled the economy since the election of 1968 which caused the $114 billion of deficits in the past four years.

The president says Congress can formulate no policy nor fund any program except what is in his budget. . . .

We say that the priority [in determining federal spending] is ours under the Constitution. We say that the first article of the Constitution gives to the Congress, both the House and Senate, the power to authorize, the power to appropriate.

The president has the right to sign legislation. The president has the right to veto legislation. But when we authorize and when we appropriate, and after he has signed the bill, then the Constitution says that he must spend the money.

But the truth of the matter is, he wants to formulate all the policy while the Constitution says the priority is ours. If the Congress initiates a program which he personally disapproves, he vetoes it; and if we pass it over his veto, as we did last year, he impounds the funds, thus committing an unconstitutional action.

If Congress overrides his veto, he says that he will impound the funds, and that is what he has done.

Mr. Speaker, what are we trying to do about it? We should have the people of America on our side, and as I say, the polls now are fast coming over to our side. The last poll showed, I think, that 59 percent of the American people thought he was acting incorrectly in his efforts to thwart the will of Congress.

What are we doing here? Well, as the gentleman from Iowa (Mr. Mezvinsky) stated, we have created a budget control committee which has recommended that Congress consider the budget as a whole, including its impact on the economy, the national debt, and the taxes. We have begun hearings on impoundment legislation, which would give Congress a way to deal with the president’s highhanded and injudicious impounding of funds; and this legislation would reassert the congressional role in the funding and policymaking processes of this nation. . . .

Mr. Matsunaga.6 I wish to commend the gentleman in the well for his leadership among the Democratic freshman members of the 93rd Congress, and for bringing to the attention of the Congress the truth which every member of the Congress should take back to his state and to his district. That truth is that the issue which the gentleman discusses is not a partisan one; rather it is one which should concern all members of Congress, regardless of party affiliation, for it goes to the basic fundamentals of our system of government; namely, the separation of powers among three coequal branches. It is a system which is unique to our form of government and which has made this nation the great nation that it is—a system which each of us in the Congress swore to uphold.

I plead with members across the aisle to take it upon themselves as members of that great body known as the Congress of the United States to help this cause in maintaining the equality of the Congress with the other two branches.

If we let the trend which we see now continue, that is, the usurpation of the powers of the Congress by the executive, then in short order we will find that our system will decay as other democratic governments in the past have. We will then find that mankind’s great dream of establishing and maintaining a true democracy on the face of this earth will have vanished.

Miss Jordan.7 Mr. Speaker, I thank the distinguished gentleman from Iowa for yielding me this time.

Mr. Speaker, since the Continental Congress there has been recurrent tension between the Congress and the president on the issue of who controls federal spending. That issue has returned with a vengeance. Actions by the president and inaction in the Congress have precipitated a genuine constitutional crisis as the national government lurches toward a system of one-man rule on the crucial question or how and where the national government is to spend money.

As freshman members of Congress, we have a unique perspective on this crisis. Whereas we expect to endure a certain amount of individual impotence in terms of our ability to influence congressional actions and national policies we do not expect the powerlessness of Congress as an institution. Whatever power we do have rests largely in the importance of our vote on national issues confronting the Congress, especially those dealing with the application of federal funds according to national priorities. When the power and influence of the congressional role in this area declines we are hurt the most.

We are here because the American people voted against monolithic government in the 1972 elections. They clearly wanted some restraints on executive branch power and they hope to get it by electing Democrats to Congress while a Republican president maintained control of the White House.

Article I of the Constitution spells out the powers of the Congress with the following words: “All legislative powers herein granted shall be vested in a Congress of the United States” which “shall have power to lay and collect taxes. . . and provide for the common defense and general welfare of the United States.” Article I further states that: “No money shall be drawn from the Treasury, but in consequence of appropriations made by law.” The Constitution describes the role of the president in Article II by stating that “[t]he executive power shall be vested in a President of the United States of America” who shall “recommend to (Congress) consideration [of] such measures as he shall judge necessary and expedient” and “take care that the laws be faithfully executed.”

These few words, encrusted with traditions, customs, and statutes over the years, provide the basis for two coequal branches of the federal government, with the federal courts supplying the third balancing force. The Constitution puts Congress at the center of government, making laws and setting policies, while the president recommends or rejects congressional actions and administers what Congress decrees. This apparently neat division of administrative and policymaking powers between the president and the Congress is, of course, not nearly so neat in reality, nor should it be. Both branches of government share these powers with the other.

But in control of the federal purse-strings, the Congress is clearly meant to be preeminent. As described in the Federalist Papers:

This power over the purse may, in fact, be regarded as the most complete and effectual weapon with which any Constitution can arm the immediate representatives of the people.8

The president annually recommends a plan of spending to the Congress, based on both congressionally authorized or mandated programs as well as new initiatives which the president recommends to the Congress. The president’s recommendations are deliberated, adjusted, and then approved by the Congress.

In 1973, this delicate balance has been destroyed. The president, flouting the Constitution, laws, and tradition, is attempting to completely dominate all decisions about how and where the federal government is to spend money. . . .

These presidential actions constitute a fundamental threat to the constitutional role of the Congress as a coequal branch of government. They are done in the names of efficiency and economy to overcome irresponsible actions or lack of action by the Congress. The president justifies his extra-legal actions as the only available means for controlling runaway federal spending. . . .

This is a battle the Congress must win. This is also a battle that Congress can win. The tools for victory are the Constitution of the United States and a Congress which believes what the Constitution says. Let us stiffen our resolve so that we can get on with the business of charting the course for the nation in the years ahead. . . .

Mr. Seiberling.9 I was thinking today—as we discussed this matter in the Democratic caucus10 and the question of impoundments—of my study of Roman history when I was a schoolboy and how the executive gradually usurped the powers of the Roman senate and the senate gradually abdicated its powers until finally one, Julius Caesar, by a sweep of the hand, ended what was by then a farce and took over the supreme power. Democracy was dead after several hundred years in Rome.

That situation could occur here. Our Founding Fathers, who were steeped in classical history, had great concern about just that very problem. One of the reasons why they set up a system of checks and balances, as anyone could see who studies the Federalist Papers, was because of their fear of having executive dictatorship. It was that very fear which caused them to give the Congress the power of the purse and the power alone to make legislation and to require that the president faithfully execute the laws.

I think we would all concede over a period of time the Congress by its very inaction or by its transfer of blank check authority to the president lost some of that power it was given by the Founding Fathers.

Once power has been lost it is very, very hard to get it back, as we find, but never in our history have we had such a concerted assault on the constitutional character of our government as we are witnessing today on the part of the president of the United States.

I happen to be one member—and I am sure that is true of most members—who wants the president to be respected and who does not want the president to be looked upon with scorn or fear on the part of the people of this country and one who is willing to accommodate the reasonable requests of the executive branch. However, we are beginning to realize what we are witnessing is a concerted attack on the very fundamentals of our constitutional system. . . .

Mr. de Lugo.11 Mr. Speaker, a decade ago, while applying for admission to the New York bar, Richard Nixon wrote:

Above all else, the framers of the Constitution were fearful of the concentration of power in either individuals or government. The genius of their solution in this respect is that they were able to maintain a very definite but delicate balance between the executive, legislative, and judicial branches of the federal government.

As president, Mr. Nixon has styled himself a “strict constructionist” on the Constitution. While there has been no definition of this phrase, it is intimated that this means that in questions of constitutional debate the president favors that argument which does not have a broad interpretation of what the Constitution says.

Mr. Speaker, there is little debate over whether or not the Congress is entrusted with the responsibility to legislate and the authority to appropriate funds. The document is very precise on this point and there is little room for interpretation. Neither is there any question that Article II of the Constitution assigns the president the duty of executing the law. It is, therefore, shocking that the executive branch apparently would like to shirk its own responsibility of executing the law and instead desires to legislate laws.

When the Congress enacts a bill to appropriate money, the president may or may not approve the legislation. As we have seen with many worthwhile social programs, the president has had no compunctions about exercising this function of his office. However, after a bill is signed into law, the president’s responsibility is mandated: He is to execute the provisions of the statute. He is not empowered to choose to carry out just those laws he wishes, substituting his own appropriation for what is specified by law. Yet this is exactly what is being done.

By refusing to spend funds duly appropriated, the president is assuming the power of Congress. He is, in effect, exercising a line-item veto. This is done at his discretion, regardless of the wishes of Congress, over programs and projects that have already become law.

That the president considers this practice within the legitimate conduct of his office has made this an audacious bid for executive supremacy. As an assault on the legislative prerogative of the Congress, it has precipitated a grave constitutional crisis.

At stake is the separation of powers, the basic underlying principle of our Constitution that has endowed our system with lasting strength and vitality. This is a battle which threatens the continuance of the present form of government. For the legislative branch to capitulate to this attack on its domain by the executive, would be to substantially alter the Constitution; not by the process of amendment but by the weakness of acquiescence. . . .

Impoundment, an Assault on the Constitution and on Our People

Mr. de Lugo. I thank the gentlewoman from Texas [for yielding her time].

First let us investigate whether there is historic precedent for such mass impoundments. It is alleged concerning impoundment that the administration is “doing not only nothing different than any other president since Thomas Jefferson has done; we are doing it in no greater degree.”

This claim is entirely without merit although it is true that in 1803 President Jefferson did not spend $50,000 appropriated for fifteen gunboats. In actuality, impoundment was used by Jefferson not to rework the programs of the law, but to avoid wasteful spending due to a change in international conditions.

The power of impoundment to the degree asserted by President Jefferson is one possessed by all chief executives. There is no question that if there are important changes in international politics or if programs can be effectively managed with more efficiency than originally thought, that the president is not compelled to squander funds no longer needed. But there is little relation between this situation and the crisis which currently faces us. Mr. Nixon is not impounding funds in isolated, specific instances suggested by prudence and common sense. To the contrary, he has assumed it as a permanent legislative power of the presidency, exercising it across the board to kill programs designed to help millions of Americans, programs with which he disagrees.

Second, it is asserted that because Mr. Nixon won an overwhelming victory last fall, be is endowed with prerogatives that exceed merely the presidency. It follows that a landslide election, then, is a mandate to ignore the Constitution. And that the programs and policies enunciated by candidate Nixon all are to be carried out, at the expressed will of the voters, with no regard for the formal process of governance.

This notion is reprehensible to me and an unmitigated challenge to our constitutional process. Election to office grants no individual unrestricted power for the term of that office. Mr. Nixon was elected to the presidency to carry out the provisions of Article II, not to subvert them. . . .

  1. 1. Edward Mezvinsky (1937–) was a Democrat from Iowa first elected in 1972.
  2. 2. The Speaker of the House during the Ninety-Third Congress was Rep. Carl Albert of Oklahoma.
  3. 3. H. R. Haldeman (1926–1993) was White House chief of staff; John Ehrlichman (1925–1999) was a White House domestic affairs adviser; John Dean (1938–) was White House counsel; Roy Ash (1918–2011) was the director of the OMB.
  4. 4. Executive privilege is the right of the president and some other members of the executive branch to withhold in some circumstances from Congress or the courts certain documents on the grounds that the public interest or the effective functioning of the executive branch requires it.
  5. 5. Thomas “Tip” O’Neill (1912–1994) was a Democratic congressman from Massachusetts and the Speaker of the House from 1977 to 1987.
  6. 6. Spark Masayuki Matsunaga (1916–1990) was a Democratic representative and later senator from Hawaii.
  7. 7. Rep. Barbara Jordan (1936–1996) was a Democrat from Texas.
  8. 8. Federalist 58. The passage continues “for obtaining a redress of every grievance, and for carrying into effect every just and salutary measure.”
  9. 9. Rep. John Seiberling (1918–2008) was a Democrat from Ohio.
  10. 10. A meeting of all the representatives belonging to the Democratic Party.
  11. 11. Ronald de Lugo (1930–1920) was the representative of the Virgin Islands. The Virgin Islands representative does not vote but participates in debates.
Teacher Programs

Conversation-based seminars for collegial PD, one-day and multi-day seminars, graduate credit seminars (MA degree), online and in-person.

Our Core Document Collection allows students to read history in the words of those who made it. Available in hard copy and for download.