Republicans won’t get the chance to kick President Obama out of his house until next November, but because of the Constitution, they will have the opportunity to make him a little less comfortable in the meantime.
Next month, the House is expected to take up the annual appropriations bill that includes the White House’s 2012 budget. Will Republicans seize the opportunity to tweak Obama by cutting his allowance, or restricting how he spends it? They’ve tried before.
In February, Rep. Steve Womack (Ark.) proposed, but later withdrew, an amendment to the 2011 spending bill that would have eliminated funding for Obama’s teleprompter.
“We’re asking people to do more with less,” the freshman told Fox News at the time. “And I think the president ought to lead by example. He is already a very gifted speaker. And I think that’s one platform he could do without.”
Rep. Randy Neugebauer (Tex.) offered a separate amendment that would have prohibited the use of money “for repair, alteration, or improvement of the Executive Residence at the White House.” Had it passed, as one member pointed out during floor debate, the amendment would have blocked the White House maintenance staff from “addressing their leaky plumbing” and installing a backup electricity feed.
Neugebauer’s colleagues didn’t rally to his side, defeating his amendment by a wide margin. And so far, Republicans haven’t revealed an appetite to make much mischief on the 2012 bill, which cleared the House Appropriations Committee last week without any amendments to the White House budget.
“We try to respect the other branch,” said Rep. Tom Latham (Iowa), a longtime appropriator.
As for whether any of his colleagues will look to tweak the White House via amendments on the floor, he said, “I hope not, but you can’t control everybody.”
Rep. Steven C. LaTourette (Ohio), another longtime committee member, said he was eager to avoid more debates about “stupid” issues.
“The leadership of this committee has made a real attempt to get back to regular order and avoid some of the silly stuff,” he said.
Rep. Jose E. Serrano (N.Y.), the ranking Democrat on the subcommittee that writes the White House funding bill, said he was surprised that no tinkering took place during committee consideration.
“If it doesn’t come up on the floor, then I gotta believe that someone [among Republicans] said, ‘You know, we’re looking a little petty here, let’s not do that,’ ” Serrano said.
The current draft of the spending bill may be mostly free of extraneous provisions, but that doesn’t mean Obama escaped the budget-cutting knife. The measure includes $640 million for the executive office of the president — $66 million less than the 2011 budget and $100 million less than the president requested.
It does include one notable restriction: a prohibition on spending any money to prepare “signing statements,” which presidents use to declare that they don’t need to follow provisions of bills they deem unconstitutional. (Democrats point out that Republicans were less critical when President George W. Bush was busy issuing such statements.)
Bickering over the White House budget is nothing new. At the start of the Civil War, first lady Mary Todd Lincoln was criticized for overspending the amount Congress had appropriated — $20,000 — to refurbish the White House.
More recently, Republicans on the House Appropriations Committee complained in 1998 about the amount of overtime that President Bill Clinton’s household staff was allegedly paid to accommodate his controversial hosting of big campaign donors for overnight stays in the Lincoln Bedroom.
In 2001, Democrats got upset that the Republican majority inserted a provision in a spending bill allowing private companies to donate food and beverages for events at Vice President Richard B. Cheney’s residence. They said the provision would allow big corporations to curry favor with the administration with no disclosure, a charge the GOP dismissed as foolish.
That same year, Democrats tried to pass language preventing the Bush administration from having the Navy pay the entire electricity bill for the vice president’s residence, which is on the grounds of the Naval Observatory.
In 2007, shortly after taking control of Congress, Democrats unsuccessfully sought to cut funding for Cheney’s office because of a dispute over whether the vice president was exempt from rules governing the handling of classified national security information.
Such restrictions almost never become law, and for good reason, said Scott Lilly, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress and former top Democratic staff member of the House Appropriations Committee.
“If Congress really did get into making significant changes in the president’s budget, then you could have a situation where the separation of powers is really passe,” Lilly said. “You could limit the president’s ability to access advisers in a way that would destroy . . . executive powers.”
Plus, Lilly noted, the president could easily retaliate by vetoing the legislative branch spending bill, sparking an unhealthy standoff between the two sides.
And Republicans have a practical motivation to keep the White House itself in tip-top shape. After all, the next occupant could be from their own party.
“That’s not this president’s White House,” Serrano said. “It’s every president’s White House.”