President Trump pats Congress’ $1.3 trillion omnibus spending bill with Vice President Pence, left, and Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross at his side on March 23. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque
Columnist

President Trump sounded disgusted when he grudgingly signed a $1.3 trillion omnibus spending plan last week.

“Nobody read it … ” he said. “Some people don’t even know what is in” it.

Trump probably would have been even more upset had he read the provision that could sharply curtail his plan to reorganize the government.

Section 740 of the 2,232-page document makes it clear, as Bloomberg Law previously reported, that Congress, not Trump, is in charge. “None of the funds made available in this or any other appropriations Act may be used to increase, eliminate, or reduce funding for a program, project, or activity as proposed in the President’s budget request for a fiscal year” unless Congress approves, according to the omnibus legislation.

That could make it more difficult for Trump to impose the cuts he wants. His March 2017 “Comprehensive Plan for Reorganizing the Executive Branch” seeks “to eliminate unnecessary agencies, components of agencies, and agency programs.” Among other cuts, his proposed budget for this fiscal year called for the elimination of 19 small agencies, from the African Development Fund to the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.

Members of Congress, including Republicans, are not eager to be Trump’s hatchet men. The omnibus spending plan provides a clear declaration that he cannot act alone. It is Congress that creates and eliminates.

“Make no mistake about it: This is a direct shot across the administration’s bow,” said Donald F. Kettl, a University of Maryland professor of public policy. “It’s not only a warning that the administration should not proceed with the reorganization plans floated by senior Cabinet officials. Even more fundamentally, it’s a statement about the separation of powers: Congress creates agencies, it creates programs, it funds their execution.”

“It’s remarkable, in fact, that this tough language comes from the Omnibus bill that was led by the Republicans,” Kettl added in an email. “The majority clearly is most interested in asserting its institutional role, even at the expense of potentially tangling with the West Wing.”

The status and details of Trump’s reorganization plans are unknown, much to the consternation of Rep. Elijah E. Cummings (Md.), the ranking Democrat on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee. He has complained to the White House Office of Management and Budget about its refusal to provide Congress copies of agency reduction plans. OMB and Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen (R-N.J.), chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, did not answer requests for comment about the omnibus language.

“The fact that the Republican controlled Congress had to pass legislation to require the Trump Administration to show us their secret reorganization plans is indicative of just how extensive the Administration’s obstruction of Congressional oversight has become,” Cummings told the Federal Insider by email. “While this is a start, a number of agencies are still getting away with keeping their reorganization plans hidden from Congress.” Republicans blocked a move by committee Democrats to subpoena the plans.

At least one agency, the Federal Labor Relations Authority, which handles federal labor-management disputes, has adopted specific reorganization plans without congressional approval. The two Republicans on the three-member authority voted to close two of its seven regional offices, citing “workload, costs, and operating efficiencies” in its agency budget justification for fiscal 2019.

Even with the omnibus language, the president retains considerable power to reduce government.

“Any administration needs to be able to actually run the executive branch,” said Jeff Neal, a senior vice president for the ICF strategic consulting firm and formerly the chief personnel officer for the Department of Homeland Security and Defense Logistics Agency. If an administration wants to cut an agency it can do so by cutting staff, added Neal, who runs the blog ChiefHRO.com, about federal human resource issues. “And that’s something that is very difficult to just stop.”

The omnibus language could be a teachable moment for Trump, if he cares to listen.

“The Trump administration is learning the same lesson that prior administrations have learned,” said Max Stier, president and chief executive of the Partnership for Public Service. “Transformational change is best accomplished and sustained when Congress and the executive branch work together and across party lines.”

Whether Trump heeds that lesson or not, the message from Congress is clear.

“This is strong, direct — and a warning that these agencies cannot, on their own, go in a different direction than Congress has authorized in legislation,” said Kettle. “This is a very big deal. It’s a quiet, but firm, warning that the agencies are accountable to Congress — and that Congress is not on board with many of the strategic plans that the agencies have developed.”

He had this reminder for Trump: “Congressional prerogatives rule.”

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