Congress should reassert its 'power of the purse'

Congress should reassert its 'power of the purse'
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President Trump recently escalated a brewing battle over funding for the World Health Organization. In a letter to the WHO, he threatened a permanent funding freeze and reconsideration of U.S. membership if the organization did not implement reforms within a 30-day deadline. This follows the administration’s move last month to temporarily suspend millions in funding.

Much of the public discussion in response, both now and then, focused on whether this move is appropriate. This is no doubt an important debate to have, but far less attention has turned to the most important question — whether any president can make such a move without Congress. Of course, the WHO funding fight is only the latest escalation in a series of battles with Congress over funding powers. Observers will remember recent standoffs over border wall funding, when the administration took steps to reallocate certain Pentagon funds to construction of the long-promised barrier. 

This problem of executive overreach didn’t just arise during the Trump administration, however. Calls from conservatives to reassert Congress’s power of the purse were frequent during the Obama years, whether it was due to executive orders resulting in billions of dollars in new spending, specific programs whose costs increased due to new rules or the invoking of executive privilege in the ATF gunwalking scandal. That last example was perhaps the most prominent, with conservatives ultimately passing legislation in the House that utilized the power of the purse to block new regulations that overstepped the executive’s authority.

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In these fights and in others, Congress has found itself on the defensive — pushing back against an Executive stepping into its territory. Going unmentioned throughout most of these debates is how much Congress has the ability to go on the offensive and use its constitutional role to assert more power than it has in generations. Doing so would be healthy for the Republic and have consequences far beyond one administration.

Congress was intended to be the entity closest to the people — and polls show people generally approve of their own congressperson. But the institution itself is consistently unpopular, and its influence and oversight has waned throughout the modern era. Now, in the time of a 24-hour news cycle and the most news-inducing president in a while, Congress seems less of a villain and more of an increasingly secondary player. Media narratives tend to center upon the president and one or two of his opponents in congressional leadership. But recognition of Congress as a coequal governing body is becoming a thing of the past.

The change is far from symbolic. When considering congressional power and effectiveness, some might use flawed measures like the number of bills being passed and enacted, but the real problem is far more insidious. Congress is not just doing less; it is doing less important things and forgoing opportunities to assert itself when it counts.

There are few legislative powers more fundamental than the “power of the purse.” Perhaps that’s why the Framers established multiple times in the Constitution that it belongs to Congress, enshrining the legislature’s power throughout the very first article.

Congress is given the power to set national policy, to authorize all tax and spending bills and to “provide for the common defense and general welfare of the United States.” But power struggles plagued the system from the beginning, culminating in the infamous standoff between President Nixon and Congress over Nixon’s aggressive use of impoundment to restrict congressional priorities. That standoff led to the 1974 Budget Act, and subsequent years of Congress’s various attempts to follow the mandates within it.

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Ironically, even as Congress wrested power over the budget away from the executive, there is evidence that the new arrangement only increased partisanship and may have perversely gave the presidency more discretionary power than before. 

Congress has never been less powerful, but the opportunity is there to reassert its authority. Indeed, rumblings have been coming from the right and the left. Conservative columnist George Will recently asserted that “control of the government’s purse” is “Congress’s core power,” and noted the closer examination the issue is receiving in the courts. Likewise, House Democrats have introduced a new “Power of the Purse Act” that would strengthen Congress’s role vis-à-vis the purse.

Whether or not voters reward Trump in six months with another four years remains to be seen. But the battle between Congress and the president is likely to transcend any potential transition in power. Americans should demand that, no matter who is president, Congress performs its constitutional duties and reasserts its oversight role before it becomes a completely irrelevant check on the Executive’s worst excesses.

Jonathan M. Bydlak is the director of the R Street Institute’s Fiscal & Budget Policy Project and the creator of SpendingTracker.org.