WASHINGTON, D.C. — Confusion over what a president may do with funds allocated under an Omnibus appropriations bill remains widespread.
(Special thanks to U.S. Rep. Louis Gohmert’s Chief of Staff Connie Hair for her contribution, without which this post would not be possible.)
Here are the facts:
1. Declaring a ‘national emergency’ makes available only the original appropriation amount corresponding to the authority used to declare the emergency. See, hurricane relief bills passed in 2017, for example. Two years following the initial declaration, new allocations are necessary (along with a new emergency declaration.)
2. Budgets establish clear spending limits. Appropriations bills in any form (whether discretionary or mandatory in nature), dedicate specific funding amounts to various federal agencies. For these amounts to be increased or the destination of funds altered, amendments are required.
3. Agencies cannot spend money however they want. Trump cannot unilaterally redistribute U.S. Army Corps dollars, for example. Though recent presidents seem to disagree on this point. The controlling Supreme Court precedent is Train vs. City of NY, which explored the constitutional ramifications of the Congressional Budget and Impoundment Control Act of 1974 — passed during the Watergate investigation with little opposition.
Standing in stark contrast to such strict definitions of spending authority are the innumerable signing statements of former presidents George W. Bush and Barack H. Obama.
If a border wall is what Trump desires, there is indeed no (legitimate) short-cut for accomplishing that stated goal.