Restoring the power of the purse
© Greg Nash

While nothing is assured, the latest round of primary results and polling suggests a Democratic Congressional majority remains a real possibility in January 2019.  Of all the changes that could bring, the most consequential could be heightened oversight of how Trump administration departments and agencies spend taxpayer money.

The question goes far beyond a $43,000 soundproof phone booth at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) or a $31,000 mahogany dining set at HUD.  Through annual spending bills, Congress can actively restrict the administration from using taxpayer money to implement regulations, rules, Executive Orders and other policies that Congress opposes. If Democrats win a majority in the House, Senate, or both, they would likely make more frequent and strategic use of this tool than Republicans have when dealing with a Republican president.

For instance, the Department of Labor recently initiated the administration’s latest action targeting the Affordable Care Act, issuing a rule to allow Association Health Plans (AHPs) to offer insurance plans that do not cover ACA’s ten essential health benefits, including maternity care, prescription drugs, and substance abuse treatment.  Democratic-written Appropriations bills could prohibit funding to implement this and other executive actions intended to chip away at ObamaCare.

The Department of Health and Human Services issued a proposed rule changing requirements for the Title X Family Planning grant program, prohibiting grantees from referring patients for abortion services. Democrats view this as a ‘domestic gag rule’ and could prohibit funding for its implementation through the Appropriations process. The same goes for expected efforts to change eligibility for Teen Pregnancy Prevention grants, which the administration has tried to unilaterally terminate.

The Trump administration will reportedly order electrical grid operators to buy electricity from struggling coal plants to extend their life.  There is a high likelihood that Democrats and Republicans who either support clean energy or oppose such unprecedented federal interventions in the private economy – or both – would restrict funding needed to implement such a move.

Members would work to prevent taxpayer funding from being used to separate undocumented immigrant children and asylum seekers – some as young as 18 months old – from their parents, or to enforce new rules denying asylum claims from those fleeing domestic or gang violence. Provisions could be added to prohibit use of funding to implement tariffs or trade barriers on allies, or to obstruct Special Counsel Robert MuellerRobert Swan MuellerSasse: US should applaud choice of Mueller to lead Russia probe MORE’s investigative work.

Some may counter that even in the minority, Congressional Republicans could block such provisions, just as Democrats have blocked restricting funding to enforce the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts, and to implement the Affordable Care Act and Dodd-Frank financial reform. But different circumstances and political dynamics could lead to different results.

Since 2011, House Republicans have been protected by their leadership from votes on politically difficult issues, including broadly popular policy provisions like the examples above. Would they have the appetite to vote against important and popular domestic and local investments, or merely keeping the federal government open, in order to toe the party line on these issues?  Would they be willing to sustain a presidential veto resulting in a government shutdown?

Further, Democrats’ leverage in the minority to block ‘poison pill’ riders has been a function of Republicans’ inability to marshal their own votes to pass spending bills. There is no evidence – yet – that this is a problem a Democratic majority would face.

President TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump rallies in Nevada amid Supreme Court flurry: 'We're gonna get Brett' Trump: 'Good news' that Obama is campaigning again Trump boosts Heller, hammers 'Wacky Jacky' opponent in Nevada MORE would obviously not relish signing bills into law that restrict his regulatory agenda. But he also twice chafed at being denied funding for a wall on the southern border, but he ultimately signed those bill anyway, declining to claim total ownership of a government shutdown through a veto.  

Even with his party controlling both chambers of Congress, President Trump has been frustrated by an inability to exert his will on spending decisions. He has failed to muscle funding for a border wall or reduce non-defense investments, and could not stave off bipartisan provisions like restricting Secretary Betsy DeVos from making structural changes to the Department of Education budget office.

If the majority changes, that frustration could become even more acute.

Matt Dennis is a Senior Vice President at CRD Associates and former Appropriations Committee staff.