Unallotments, impoundments and guts


The Constitutional crisis that unfolded on Dec. 30 over Gov. Pawlenty’s unallotments are a Minnesota parallel of President Nixon’s unconstitutional impoundments of 1973-1974. But it’s a worse problem here than it was in Washington. Unlike the federal government, Minnesota cannot run its government on deficit spending. 

A good way to study issues involved is to look at reporting from the Minnesota Independent, and the legal issues disussed at the MinnLawyer Blog. And for a concise and historical look at the current crisis and its similarities with Nixon, read the op/ed piece by former Vice President Walter Mondale and former U.S. Attorney David Lillehaug.

What hasn’t been dealt with locally to this point, however, was how the earlier impoundment crisis played out. After court challenges, Presidnts Nixon and later Ford had to send Congress notice of “recision” intentions that would work like impoundments, or unallotments, and Congress then had the right to override the president’s intentions and thus preserve Constitutional separation of powers.

I was a Washington correspondent for the St. Paul Pioneer Press and Knight Ridder Newspapers in those days. The votes in Congress went mostly along party lines, but I remember two notable exceptions. Former Minnesota Rep. John Zwach and North Dakota Rep. Mark Andrews were among House members to break Republican ranks and vote to restore funding for impounded programs. By Andrews’ estimate, one such program may have affected six jobs in the entire state of North Dakota; Zwach wasn’t sure, but that program had even less impact in Minnesota’s old Sixth District.

So why did they do it? Both congressmen told me they believed strongly in the separation of powers and Congress’ power of the purse strings. Even though they may not have supported the programs when they initially passed Congress, they both believed that Congress had spoken.

This is where a big difference comes into play. Congress may have caused problems with the federal budget that would need to be addressed later, but deficit spending did allow the government to proceed. What’s more, Nixon had the Watergate scandal hanging over his head, discouraging the White House from making too big a fuss over impoundments and the Supreme Court’s rulings. But equally important, and often overlooked in post-Watergate memories, is that the president and administration were much more politically moderate than the current administration in St. Paul.

Going forward, state legislators from both parties will need to reach down and find the courage shown by Congressmen Zwach and Andrews. It will take courage to deal with spending cuts and revenue enhancement to make ends meet and extract us from the current mess and Constitutional crisis.

Mondale and Lillehaug warned us this day was coming. It’s here. And Zwach and Andrews showed us how to properly respond. Lawmakers will need to reach deep and find the guts to do the same regardless if the executive branch chooses to be part of the solution or the primary problem.