October 23, 2001
Congress Balks at Giving President Emergency Powers
By Dana Milbank
Congressional negotiators balked at a White House proposal that would give the president new powers to keep the government open if Congress could not meet because of a crisis.
The Bush administration last week suggested an emergency spending procedure that would allow a president, in consultation with congressional leaders, to continue government operations for 30 days at existing funding levels if spending authority expires during a time of crisis when Congress cannot convene.
The White House dropped the proposal when congressional and administration aides could not agree on the structure of such a mechanism. In their haste to vacate Capitol Hill because of an anthrax scare, lawmakers instead agreed to extend interim legislation to keep the government running until Oct. 31 without making a policy for future emergencies.
Rep. David R. Obey (Wis.), ranking Democrat on the House Appropriations Committee, said the White House had sought to give the president power to extend government operations for 30 days if the president had the permission of the speaker of the House, in this case J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.).
"We were willing to give them some short-term authority if they had the agreement of both parties in both houses," Obey said. Aides to President Bush talked about such a plan with congressional aides, but the Bush proposal "was very different from what had been discussed on the phone," Obey said. "On both sides of the aisle in the House it was felt that was too far-reaching."
Bush aides now indicate that getting such powers for the president is not a top priority, making it unlikely such a proposal will become law. But the proposal, which comes in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and when congressional offices have been closed because of fears of anthrax, underscores the government's new concerns about catastrophic terrorism in the United States.
While scholars say it would be controversial, if not unconstitutional, for Congress to delegate its purse-strings authority to the president, Amy Call, a spokeswoman for the White House Office of Management and Budget, said the emergency provision would only be activated when congressional leaders gave their approval. "This would be a decision by congressional leaders in participation with the president," she said.
Robert D. Reischauer, a former director of the Congressional Budget Office and now president of the Urban Institute, said there would likely be nothing unconstitutional about members of Congress delegating authority to their own leaders. "It's not a crazy thing to develop some kind of mechanism to ensure the government can continue operating," he said. "If the alternative is shutting down the government, I can't really see why it would be objectionable."
Bush aides said that while the proposal is not meant to shift power from the legislative to executive branch, they were not optimistic Congress would approve a measure that even appeared to make such a shift. "Publicly, they're not going to give up any prerogatives," an official said.
Existing law does not have a provision stipulating what would happen if Congress could not meet to authorize government spending, Reischauer said. But under the Civil War-era Feed and Forage Act, the military could continue to buy supplies without budget authority, he said.
The Wall Street Journal reported yesterday that Vice President Cheney's staff promoted the idea of giving the president authority to keep the government operating for up to 30 days if Congress could not convene.
The current federal fiscal year began on Oct. 1 without Congress passing any of the 13 annual spending bills needed to fund the government. The government has continued to operate under short-term spending bills Congress has passed and Bush has signed.
Staff writer Dan Morgan contributed to this report.
Copyright © 2001, Washington Post Company. All rights reserved.
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