While I fully support the idea of cutting federal spending in substantial amounts, I’ve made it clear in a previous column that I do not believe the sequester is the way to do it. I am convinced that its hidden costs and disruptive side effects will make its ultimate savings impact far less than $85 billion. However, my primary problem with it has to do with the way it undermines the Constitution’s most basic doctrine — the separation of powers.
Having had their fill of monarcy, the Founders separated power by dividing it among three branches. The legislative branch — Congress — was given the power to pass the laws, levy taxes and determine how money will be spent. The executive branch was given the power to enforce the laws and control the military. The judicial branch was given the power to judge the laws and life tenure for its members, ensuring their independence. Everything was carefully checked and balanced.
It hasn’t stayed that way. The executive branch has taken over much of Congress’s power to control the money. Movement in that direction probably began with the Civil War, when Abraham Lincoln, as commander-in-chief, was given a bigger voice in how much money had to be raised and how it should be spent than any previous president had had.
The trend accelerated with other commanders-in-chief during crises and wartime: Woodrow Wilson during World War I, Franklin Roosevelt during the Great Depression and World War II and their successors during the Cold War.
When I got to the Senate in 1993, I saw firsthand what had emerged as a result. At the beginning of each session, Congress waits to hear what the president’s agenda is — the State of the Union — and then see what his spending priorities are — the President’s Budget — before acting. However, I soon realized that we were not toothless.
The Appropriations Committee, through its twelve subcommittees, held the purse strings and therefore a hand on the throttle (or brake) of every executive agency. They conducted extensive hearings on the agencies’ activities and every year wrote a new bill giving directions as to how the money should be spent. Congressional opinion still counted. When I was a subcomittee chairman, the staff and I got our phone calls rapidly returned from all the agencies under our jurisdiction. We often ignored the president’s recommendations.
That process is called “regular order.” It has not been followed since 2009. Instead, the government has been funded by a series of “continuing resolutions” that allow the executive branch to “continue” to spend at levels designated in the resolution. Some have applauded this change, saying that spending has slowed as a result, a conclusion that is open to serious challenge.
What is not open to challenge is the fact that Congress’s failure to follow regular order has significantly decreased the agencies’ willingness to listen to or even deal with members of Congress. Since congressional committees no longer determine who will thrive and who will not, having ceded that authority to the president, why should an agency head pay any attention to congressional opinions?
Congress could deal with our financial crisis by giving the president specific appropriations bills to either sign or veto. By adopting the sequester instead, Congress has removed any check on the president’s ability to allocate money according to his own political agenda. If this precedent holds, historians will look back at the last two Congresses and consider them a significant factor in the further shifting of the power of the purse away from the legislative branch and into the executive branch.
James Madison would be appalled.