A Supreme Court decision striking down the use of the legislative veto does not affect the process of budget rescissions. An article Saturday may have left the impression that the decision would give the Office of Management and Budget a freer hand in rescinding funds appropriated by Congress, as well as in deferring the spending of such funds.
In the wake of a Supreme Court decision that will force Congress and the executive branch to draw new battle lines in the quest for power, at least one key executive agency--the White House's Office of Management and Budget--appeared eager yesterday to call a truce.
"Our reaction is not to create a confrontation with Congress," OMB spokesman Edwin L. Dale said. "We don't want to give the impression that we don't think it's important, but we're not looking for a fight."
In a decision Thursday that upset the balance of power in Washington, the court struck down the use of the "legislative veto," a device that Congress has used for more than 50 years to transfer authority to the executive branch while reserving for itself the right to veto any use of that authority it doesn't like.
More than 60 active laws contain legislative veto provisions, including the 1974 Impoundment Control Act. The loss of the legislative veto means that Congress no longer can reject OMB's budget deferrals. The mechanism for wiping out huge budget deficits, in other words, now rests in the hands of OMB Director David A. Stockman.
No supply-side charts are now needed, no bloody budget fights. All he has to do is refuse to spend what Congress has appropriated.
"Stockman hasn't made up his mind yet," Dale said. "But deferrals have not been a serious issue. We think the law has worked well."
The gently waving truce flag at OMB reflects a new concern among executive agencies: what Congress has given, in the way of delegated authority, it also can take away.
"When Congress is through, executive branch powers will be curtailed and the nation will be left with a more cumbersome, less responsive national government," Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa) said.
With Grassley's words echoing in their ears, along with warnings from constitutional scholars that the ultimate loser in the legislative veto decision might be the president, officials at several executive agencies were suggesting yesterday that the veto provisions written into their laws weren't all that bad.
At the Environmental Protection Agency, where vetoes are written into the "Superfund" hazardous-waste cleanup law and the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide and Rodenticide Act, no one could remember a single instance of the veto power having been used.
At the Interior Department, a provision in the Federal Land Policy and Management Act allowed the House Interior Committee last year to veto Interior Secretary James G. Watt's decision to allow mineral leasing in Montana's Bob Marshall Wilderness.
Later, however, Congress countermanded Watt's decision again in an amendment to an appropriations bill, a tactic that Congress retains.
"It's always been a bit of a problem," said an Interior Department spokesman. "But I can't think of other examples."
A Senate analysis found that Congress used its veto power under the Impoundment Control Act to reject only 65 budget deferrals out of hundreds proposed by the OMB between 1974 and November, 1982.
Under the Governmental Reorganization Act, which gives the president the authority to reorganize the executive branch, the president proposed 115 reorganizations. Congress rejected 23.
Despite evidence that, more often than not, Congress has approved of the way the executive branch has wielded the power it has been loaned, regulators and administration officials said yesterday that they fear Congress will react to the court's decision by yanking back much of that power.
In some cases, they said, the delegated authority is all that has made it possible for government to run at all.
The landmark case decided Thursday, for example, involved the power to decide on immigration cases, which had been delegated to the attorney general to relieve Congress of a crush of private immigration bills.
"Congress has enough trouble today in passing general statutes," said Alan Morrison, the Public Citizen lawyer who argued the winning side in the Supreme Court case. "As an institution it is incapable of trying to run the federal agencies."
On the sidelines of the power battle are the lobbyists for private-interest groups. Business groups had a uniformly negative reaction to the decision, while among public-interest groups the reaction was generally positive.
"The legislative veto was largely a negative weapon used by Congress to prevent or nullify regulatory agency action," said Bill Butler of the National Audubon Society. Where it affected environmental statutes, he said "it provided opponents of regulatory action another forum to challenge these actions."