How to Put the “Most Complete and Effectual Weapon” Back in Their Hands

From the Library of Law & Liberty:

Indubitably, our nation’s finances are a mess. America has run deficits 36 of the past 40 years. The national debt is $18 trillion, and it has tripled as a percentage of GDP since 1974.

Each February, the President rolls out his budget—a collection of tomes loaded with tables and text attempting to explain the government’s $3.7 trillion in spending. And where does this money go? Mostly to fund long-existing federal agencies and programs.

The public, already horrified by the rising waters of red ink, are further enraged by Congress’ ineptitude. Both chambers have adopted a budget resolution on time only six times since 1977. Congress blows its own April 15 deadline by an average of nearly 40 days. Congress virtually never passes the 12 appropriations bills before the end of the fiscal year (September 30), and often fails to vote on a single one. Instead, the leaders avert a government shutdown at the last minute by rushing through omnibus spending bills and continuing resolutions whose contents are unknown to most legislators.

In December, I saw up close just how estranged Congress has become from the power of the purse. I was one of four witnesses before a subcommittee of the Oversight and Government Reform Committee of the House of Representatives. The hearing’s topic was the money collected by executive agencies in the form of fees, fines, and settlements. It is a whopping sum: $516 billion per year, an amount equal to about one-seventh of the federal budget.

One representative asked us: How much of this money are executive agencies spending without congressional direction? I did not know, despite having spent almost 15 years on Capitol Hill. Nor did the expert from the watchdog Government Accountability Office. Another colleague on our panel ventured that the spending data likely could be found in an office within the U.S. Treasury. Congress could request it, but it was otherwise unavailable.

The subcommittee members present (the modest number who had shown up at the hearing) were gobsmacked by this response. Congress is supposed to have power of the purse! As Article I of the Constitution says, “No Money shall be drawn from the Treasury, but in Consequence of Appropriations made by Law; and a regular Statement and Account of the Receipts and Expenditures of all public Money shall be published from time to time.”

Clearly that’s not how it works. How did we get here?