Congress must seize the opportunity to claw back its power

Legislative branch has been complicit in its own diminishment for too long

Over time, Congress has ceded its grip on the “power of the purse” — and the executive branch has gladly stepped in to absorb it, Hedtler-Gaudette and Bydlak write. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Over time, Congress has ceded its grip on the “power of the purse” — and the executive branch has gladly stepped in to absorb it, Hedtler-Gaudette and Bydlak write. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted June 18, 2021 at 6:00am

The Biden administration issued its proposed $6 trillion budget on the Friday before Memorial Day, making it easy to overlook the details amid cookouts and travel.  

But the nitty-gritty details are worth our attention, and Congress needs to ensure that American taxpayer dollars are spent appropriately and efficiently. As it stands, Congress, and therefore the general public, does not have a big enough or clear enough window into exactly how funds are spent, and that needs to change.

There are two things to know about the presidential budget. First, every administration is legally required to produce one and send it to Congress. And second, each such budget proposal is almost immediately dead on arrival. The president’s budget is a messaging document designed to set the administration’s priorities; it rarely looks anything like what congressional leaders hammer out.

This last point is worth emphasizing. Under the Constitution, Congress is the body that ultimately holds the purse strings, wielding the “power of the purse” and making the final decisions on where, when and for what purposes tax dollars are spent. This authority is supposed to be the primary tool that allows Congress to check the executive branch.

Yet over time, Congress has ceded its grip on this essential power — and the executive branch has gladly stepped in to absorb it. While the details of executive budgets ultimately may be ignored, there is little question of who sets the spending agenda.

There is plenty of blame to go around, but Congress has no doubt been complicit in its own diminishment. Many now accept that it should take a backseat to the president whenever one party controls the White House and one or both chambers of Congress. In such a political environment, standing up for Congress’ institutional integrity and reining in the excesses of the executive branch seem quaint.

In contrast, when one party controls Congress and another controls the presidency, it suddenly becomes paramount for those in Congress to reclaim traditional authorities and stand up to the “imperial presidency.”

Over the last few months, however, Congress has shown an interest in clawing back its power of the purse, and lawmakers should use the budget process to follow through.

In April, the House Budget Committee held a hearing on the power of the purse, at which multiple witnesses made the case that Congress should improve executive branch transparency when implementing spending directives from Congress. That’s because the process for doing so, called apportionment, is largely a black box that neither Congress nor the broader public have insight into in real time.

Why does it matter if Congress is made aware of how and when the executive branch is spending money already approved by Congress?

For one, fiscal conservatives who care about reining in federal spending will never get their wish without more oversight over how the executive branch uses public funds. Plus, Congress has a duty to hold the executive branch accountable and represent the interests of taxpayers. And the executive branch has been fast, loose and secretive with spending decisions in recent decades, proving that congressional oversight is necessary.

And lest one thinks this is all about Donald Trump, think again. Sure, much was rightly made over the last administration’s withholding of foreign aid to Ukraine and its attempt to reprogram nearly $4 billion to the border wall from the Pentagon’s budget. But executive overreach around federal spending predates the last four years: President Barack Obama paid health insurance subsidies without Congress explicitly appropriating the funds, and President George W. Bush similarly left Congress out when he needed funding for foreign operations overseas.

There are several ways for Congress to regain power over our federal spending, one of which is to pass the Congressional Power of the Purse Act, a comprehensive reform bill that enjoys broad bipartisan support from civil society groups. The legislation would increase transparency around federal spending and strengthen the Government Accountability Office’s ability to oversee spending decisions and rein in executive branch emergency powers.

In light of severe congressional dysfunction, action on this and other pro-accountability reforms could not be more timely.

Americans just want to know that their government is not wasting their hard-earned resources. They want to trust that the government is acting in their best interest and is doing so ethically and effectively.

These ends require Congress stepping up to advance substantive changes that meaningfully restore the imbalance between the legislative and executive branches in the arena of spending. In an era of gridlock and intense partisan polarization, both in Congress and in the country at large, this is exactly the type of thing we should all be able to agree on. Only by doing so will we once again have the responsible and accountable government that we all want and deserve.    

Dylan Hedtler-Gaudette is the government affairs manager at the Project On Government Oversight, a watchdog group that investigates and exposes waste, corruption and abuse of power in the federal government.

Jonathan Bydlak is the director of the governance program at the R Street Institute, a public policy research organization that promotes free markets and limited, effective government.