Trump Doubles Down on Plan for Huge Spending Power Grab

Russ Vought pressing a button.

Trump advisor Russ Vought wants to push the button.
Photo: Samuel Corum/Getty Images

When people tell horror stories about Donald Trump’s second-term agenda, they usually focus on his plans to seek vengeance against his political enemies via the Justice Department or perhaps special prosecutors. Others may fear the reactionary social policies he is likely to impose, or the sweeping destruction of climate change or workplace regulations. And the whole country may be shaken by the mass deportations of undocumented immigrants that Trump henchman Stephen Miller is planning.

But arguably some of the most important second-term plans involve Team Trump’s dark designs on the so-called swamp of the federal bureaucracy. Their interest in tearing down the civil service system is well-known, along with a scheme to fill vacant positions created by mass firings of non-partisan professional employees and their replacement via a so-called Schedule F of political appointees chosen for all the top policy-making jobs in the executive branch. The purpose of placing these MAGA loyalists throughout the bureaucracy isn’t just to ride herd on such bureaucrats as remain in federal departments and agencies. These new commissars would also serve as Trojan Horses charged with advising the Trump high command on how to eliminate or disable executive branch functions the new order dislikes or can do without.

A second Trump administration, you see, will be under a lot of pressure from Republicans in Congress and conservative ideologues to decimate non-defense discretionary programs, i.e., most of what the federal government does outside defense (which the GOP will definitely wish to expand) and the big middle-class entitlements like Social Security and Medicare (which Trump has repeatedly pledged to leave alone). Preserving or extending the 2017 Trump tax cuts will force major additional cuts. Non-defense discretionary programs are also where most of the social engineering and income redistribution that MAGA folk hate takes place, in areas ranging from education and environmental protection to health and human services functions. If Trump gets lucky and gets a workable Republican trifecta, perhaps he can go for deep cuts in all these disfavored areas via a vast budget reconciliation bill that Congress will be expected to approve on an up-or-down vote. Otherwise Team Trump plans to excavate a highly controversial device popularized by Richard M. Nixon called “presidential impoundment.”

Impoundment involves a claim by the president of the power to override the spending authority consigned to Congress by Article I of the U.S. Constitution. In minor matters and in consultation with congressional appropriators, impoundment was used by most presidents to nip and tuck undesirable spending. But its aggressive deployment by Nixon was very much a leading feature of his “imperial presidency” that eventually led to his impeachment and resignation from office. Subsequently Congress enacted the Congressional Budget and Impoundment Control Act of 1974, which governs the federal budget process even now, and that makes impoundment claims illegal (presidents do retain a limited power to propose “rescissions and deferrals” of some appropriations, but they are subject to approval by Congress). While presidents have invariably complained about the spending decisions of Congress, particularly when their party did not control it, Trump was the first president since Nixon to talk about impoundment as an inherent executive power that had been unconstitutionally usurped. And indeed, his effort to impound $400 million in money appropriated for aid to Ukraine is what led to his own impeachment in late 2019.

Indeed, Trump’s budget director Russell Vought was complaining about limits on impoundment literally the day before he left office. That’s significant now because Vought, founder of the Center for Renewing America, is heavily involved in preparations for a second Trump administration, and is generally thought to be the front-runner to become White House Chief of Staff. As the Washington Post reports, the Trump team is planning to make an assertion of impoundment powers central to the MAGA takeover of the federal government, beginning on Day One:

Trump and his advisers have prepared an attack on the limits on presidential spending authority. On his campaign website, Trump has said he will push Congress to repeal parts of the 1974 law that restricts the president’s authority to spend federal dollars without congressional approval. Trump has also said he will unilaterally challenge that law by cutting off funding for certain programs, promising on his first day in office to order every agency to identify “large chunks” of their budgets that would be halted by presidential edict.

So in order to reassert impoundment powers Trump and his advisors will push their new set of MAGA appointees in the federal departments and agencies to tell them exactly where to make the draconian cuts they will need. It could all hit Washington like a jack-hammer.

That impoundment has an unsavory association with Nixon does not bother Trump and his minions; there’s already a revisionist Nixon fan club among MAGA thinkers and writers, focused precisely on the 37th president’s efforts to expand presidential powers to the breaking point. And Vought, the likely architect and engineer of this quick 2025 Trump power grab, has few inhibitions, as the Washington Post explains:

A battle-tested D.C. bureaucrat and self-described Christian nationalist is drawing up detailed plans for a sweeping expansion of presidential power in a second Trump administration. Russ Vought, who served as the former president’s budget chief, calls his political strategy for razing long-standing guardrails “radical constitutionalism….”

[Steve] Bannon, the former Trump strategist ordered this week to serve a four-month prison term for contempt of Congress, touted Vought and his colleagues as “madmen” ready to upend the U.S. government at a recent Center for Renewing America event.

“No institution set up within its first two years [has] had the impact of this organization,” Bannon said. “We’re going to rip and shred the federal government apart, and if you don’t like it, you can lump it.”

That’s not a threat but a promise.

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