Appropriations

Congress’s Diminishing Power of the Purse

One of the most important aspects of the separation of powers is the commitment of the power of the purse to the legislative branch. It constrains the executive and the judiciary from engaging in unilateral action without congressional approval. If there’s no approval, there will be no money to pay for the executive action, as the rule would have it. Unsurprisingly, with the advent of the administrative state and an aggressive executive, this power has been significantly diminished in modern times

Indeed, Article I, Section 8 of the Constitution provides expressly that “[t]he Congress shall have power to lay and collect taxes, duties, imposts and excises, to pay the debts,” to the exclusion of any other branch’s exercise of those powers. The upshot: the separation of powers, especially Congress’ power over appropriation priorities, is eroded as executive agencies and executive allies have access to funds not appropriated by Congress.

In order to keep their power of the purse intact, Congress originally enacted the Miscellaneous Receipts Statute in 1849. That law is now codified today in Title 31 of the U.S. Code. It requires all government officials in receipt of funds, such as settlements from civil or criminal enforcement, to deposit that money with the Treasury. As a structural point, the law effectively aims at stopping executive agencies from self-funding through enforcement or other receipts of money. It maintains their dependence on Congress for their annual appropriation.

However, the Justice Department has found a way around this law to fund political allies on the left or executive priorities without congressional approval: settlement agreements. As Wall Street Journal columnist Kimberley Strassel recently reported, “[i]t works like this: The Justice Department prosecutes cases against supposed corporate bad actors. Those companies agree to settlements that include financial penalties. Then Justice mandates that at least some of that penalty money be paid in the form of “donations” to nonprofits that supposedly aid consumers and bolster neighborhoods.”

The trick here is that Justice never “receives” the funds within the meaning of the Miscellaneous Receipts Statute, and thus has no requirement to deposit the funds it exacts from defendants with the Treasury—the donations are made directly without money ever being received into Justice’s hands.

Despite the fact that Justice Guidance discourages the practice because “it can create actual or perceived conflicts of interest and/or other ethical issues”—and, indeed, it was almost banned in 2008 due to perceptions of abuse—Justice continues to push this method of funding political allies and favored priorities of the executive. In fact, “[i]n 2011 Republicans eliminated the Housing Department’s $88 million for ‘housing counseling’ programs,” Strassel reports, “which spread around money to groups like La Raza. Congress subsequently restored only $45 million, and has maintained that level. . . [B]ank settlements pour some $30 million into housing counseling groups, thereby essentially restoring all the funding.”

Your Pro-National-ID Appropriators

Every year around this time, a ritual is underway that quietly moves the ball forward on creating a U.S. national ID. That ritual is the annual appropriations process in Congress, which doles out money for everything the government does—including weaving together a system that may one day identify, track, and control each one of us.

As I noted last year in my policy analysis, REAL ID: A State-by-State Update, DHS has spent over a quarter billion dollars on REAL ID since the 2008 fiscal year. Beginning in 2012, grants supporting state efforts to implement REAL ID were moved into the State Homeland Security Grant Program, which fairly well keeps the amounts hidden from you and me. But appropriators at any time could deny the expenditure of funds to implement REAL ID.

Why don’t they do it? Judging by their records, appropriators are a strongly pro-national-ID group. Appropriations committee members who were in Congress when it passed tended to favor the national ID law—Republicans almost without exception. (And because Republicans chair the appropriations committees in both the House and Senate, they are currently the ones to watch.)

House members serving in 2005 had four chances to vote against the national ID law, and senators had two: First, when REAL ID passed the House on a test vote as H.R. 418. Second, when the rule governing debate in the House on H.R. 1268 passed by voice vote, attaching REAL ID to this spending bill. Third, when H.R. 1268 passed the House and Senate. And, fourth, when the conference report on H.R. 1268 passed the House and Senate.

The Data Says Open-Ended Spending Bills Are Common

Let’s start with a little civics lesson: Congress spends money through a two-step process. Spending must first be authorized. That’s called an authorization of appropriations. Then, in a second step, the money is actually appropriated. There are exceptions, but on the whole this is how spending works. Authorizing bills go to authorizing committees, and appropriations bills go to the appropriations committees. When both do their thing, money gets spent. It’s good to keep an eye on.

In our project to generate better data about what Congress is doing, we’ve “marked up” over 80 percent of the bills introduced in Congress so far this year, adding richer and more revealing computer-readable data to the text of bills. That’s over 4,000 of the 5,000-plus bills introduced in Congress since January. We’re to the point where we can learn things.

I was surprised to find just how often the bills that authorize spending leave the amounts open-ended. A recent sample of the bills we’ve marked up includes 428 bills with authorizations of appropriations. Just over 40 percent of them place no limit on how much money will be spent. They say things like “such sums as may be necessary,” leaving entirely to the appropriations committees how much to spend. (There are many bills with both defined amounts and open-ended spending. To be conservative, we treated any bill having limited spending as not unlimited.)

This leads me to two related conclusions. First, authorizations of appropriations being a potential brake on spending, this surprisingly common practice is part of Congress’s fiscal indiscipline. The members of Congress and Senators who introduce such bills and vote to authorize open-ended spending are avoiding their responsibility to determine how much a program is worth to us, the taxpayers.

Congress Spends Your Tax Dollars on a National ID

It’s appropriations season! – that wonderful time of year when the House and Senate pass competing versions of legislation to fund government agencies, bureaus, and…whatever pork and pet projects they can squeeze in.

Congress has made most of its spending decisions over the past few years through last-minute continuing resolutions or consolidated appropriations bills. That makes it harder to follow the money (which may be part of the reason they’ve been doing it that way), but it’s important to watch the dollars because some of that money is going toward national ID systems and biometrics.

Last week the House passed their FY 2014 Department of Homeland Security appropriations bill. As in years past, the legislation contains funding for three of everyone’s favorite identification programs: REAL ID, E-Verify, and US-VISIT/the Office of Biometric Identity Management (OBIM), a DHS office covering biometrics for travelers at airports, ports, and other points of entry.

For the coming fiscal year, the House appropriated $114 million for E-Verify, $232 million for OBIM, and $1.2 billion for the State Homeland Security Grant Program (SHSGP), from which grants for REAL ID implementation get doled out to states.

These numbers are consistent with past levels of appropriations for these programs, with the exception of REAL ID, which had its own funding stream until it was folded into SHSGP in fiscal 2012.

Emergency Spending

A recent paper by Veronique de Rugy examines how policymakers use various budgeting gimmicks to increase spending and obscure liabilities. One particularly abusive mechanism is the designation of supplemental spending as an “emergency.” The emergency designation makes it easier for policymakers to skirt budgetary rules, particularly “pay-as-you-go” (PAYGO) requirements.

Defund REAL ID

Lots of other stories have dominated the headlines lately, so people have paid little attention to news that House and Senate leaders have settled on a plan to fund the government for the first half of fiscal 2013 through a continuing resolution.

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