Close readers of the Weekly Wastebasket will only need to stretch their memories to last Friday (which seems to have been a month ago, we agree) to recall that Taxpayers for Common Sense made “Four Point Six” recommendations for the Biden Administration on various federal agencies. These were a series of actions we suggested the administration could immediately implement to start off on the right fiscally-balanced foot.
You don’t remember them all? Well, a lot has happened in the last week, so we’ll pause while you refresh your memory on our many common sense recommendations. Pro tip: pay particular attention to our recommendations to the Office of Management and Budget (OMB).
Now read this January 20, 2021 letter to the incoming head of the OMB from the Chairs of the House Appropriations and Budget Committees.
Sound similar? We, literally, could have drafted this letter for Reps. Rosa DeLauro (D-CT) and John Yarmuth (D-KY). (Call us, we’re happy to help!)
The letter asks for a return to professional oversight of the so-called “apportionment” process which are the technical budget documents releasing federal funding once it is appropriated by the Congress. The Trump Administration had moved that task to political appointees at OMB. And, although we hate to re-litigate it, that decision facilitated the president’s illegal withholding of Congressionally-appropriated funds from Ukraine in 2019. Without the professional oversight of career officials, steeped in the rules (and penalties) under the Antideficiency Act and the Impoundment Control Act, funds were withheld in violation of federal law. Our recommendation to “observe Congressional primacy in the appropriations process” speaks directly to actions like those by the Trump Administration.
And speaking of the professional staff of OMB, we strongly agree with the need to reject the Trump Administration push to create a so-called “Schedule F” designation to remove civil service protections from a wide swath of federal employees. The nation benefits from having a professional, merit-based civil service and resulting institutional knowledge that doesn’t come and go on the whims of the party in power.
The House letter goes on to ask for OMB to be reliable, transparent, and commit to an expedient transfer of information. Again, we agree, and we go a bit further. TCS calls for better access to budget justification documents, an understandable “Citizens Budget” document, and a much-needed fix of the OMB website. As we said in our Four Point Six recommendations about fixing the OMB website, “In general the site seems to be more about hiding information than providing it.”
The House letter asks that uses of apportionment authority under the Antideficiency Act be published. We ask for any violations of the Antideficiency Act, the Impoundment Control Act and the Purpose Statue to be made publicly available on both the OMB and Government Accountability Office websites.
The House Members also decry the Trump Administration’s recent proposal of 73 rescissions of Congressional actions in Fiscal Year 2021 appropriations bills a mere 20 days after agreeing to those exact spending proposals during final budget negotiations. Not surprisingly, these proposed rescissions of spending authority would fulfill Trump Administration political priorities – often in foreign aid. At least by following the established process for stopping funds, it appears they learned something from to the above-mentioned illegal impoundment of funds to Ukraine in 2019. Truth be told, this is a bit of a tempest in a teapot. There’s nothing that forces Congress to take up the rescissions – but it does delay expenditure of those funds for 45 days – after that the administration has to obligate them. And we’re talking about $27.4 billion out of roughly $1.3 trillion in discretionary spending included in the Omnibus package.
(By way of background: Since first proposed in the Bush Administration, TCS has supported proposals to create an enhanced or expedited rescission authority that would require Congress to take an up or down vote on proposed rescissions. These also include restrictions on abuses, such as how the same items can’t be proposed multiple times, and limits on the number and scope of rescission packages, for instance. But that is a topic for another Wastebasket.)
The Biden Administration appears to agree on this issue with the House letter and “rescinded the rescission request” if you will. In reality, that means those appropriated funds will be released and spent at the appropriate time.
At TCS we believe President Biden, a long-time member of the Legislative Branch as a Senator, will likely have more respect for the long-established primacy of Congress in the federal appropriations process. But we also know the pull of the imperial presidency to end run the plodding and painful process that is legislating. We hope the current raft of Executive Orders sweeping away the raft of Executive Orders from the Trump Administration will be the end of the political ping-pong game and policymakers work to adopt more enduring legislation. But in the end, greater transparency and understanding of this complex, inside-baseball budgeting and spending, process is needed.
For the sake of taxpayers facing many challenges, we hope the incoming Director of the Office of Management and Budget will commit to respecting, and Congress will start exercising, Congress’ power of the purse.