Memorializing the Death of Checks and Balances

Weekly WastebasketMemorializing the Death of Checks and BalancesAll of Congress needs to step up.

Budget & Tax,  | Weekly Wastebasket
May 21, 2020  | 6 min read | Print Article

This Memorial Day there will be few parades down Main Street. No high school marching band following a convertible holding your hometown’s veterans. In the world we currently inhabit, that kind of crowd is too perilous. There will be family barbecues in the backyard, and maybe a walk on the beach if you live near one.

Memorial Day is supposed to be focused on remembering our dead heroes and gathering at their gravesites to decorate them (at least, until it was more about super sales). As we approach Memorial Day here at Taxpayers for Common Sense we’re focusing on the waning, but hopefully not complete death, of the Constitutional norms of checks and balances. In fact we’re hoping a comment from that bard of American literature, Mark Twain, will come to pass: “Reports of my death are greatly exaggerated.”

In recent years, the give and take of negotiations between the Article I (Congress) and Article II (Executive) branches of government has been obliterated. In its place is scorched earth warfare. Us versus them. Republicans versus Democrats. I’m on top and you have to just accept it.

Exhibit A – the House of Representatives holds hearings on … just about anything … and the administration refuses to send witnesses. Senate hearings have witnesses from the administration, however. The president says this is because the House is all “Trump haters.” House subpoenas are stonewalled or ignored. The Congress and the White House have been in different political hands before, but this total refusal to play ball is unprecedented.

Exhibit B – The Congress passes legislation, which the president signs into law, limiting the amount of money that can be spent on border barriers. To get around that limit, the president declares a dubious “national emergency” and reprograms money from important military construction projects previously appropriated by the Congress. Ordinarily this would be a violation of the Antideficiency Act that prohibits spending money prior to or in excess of a Congressional appropriation. But not if you gin up a bogus “emergency.”

Exhibit C – The Congress passes legislation, which the president signs into law, appropriating money for military assistance to Ukraine. The president withholds that money for non-germane reasons. This is a violation of the Impoundment Control Act. Ultimately, Senators voted that this was actually okay.

Exhibit D – The Congress passes legislation, which the president signs into law, setting federal farm and food policies for the next five years. The president (in this case the last two), through the Secretary of Agriculture, immediately works to undermine or simply ignore the letters of that law. A prohibition on farm bill programs paying for ethanol blender pumps at gas stations? The administration does it anyway. A farm safety net focused on risk management and maximizing exports? Nah, we’ll replace trade with $28 billion in “aid” to buy the silence of farmers and ranchers harmed by the president’s trade war. And the farm bill’s limiting individual farmers to $125,000 in annual income subsidies? LOL. USDA set a limit of $500,000 for those trade bailout payments, another potential $500,000 for hurricane and flood aid, oh and the upcoming COVID-19 payments can be up to $250,000 ($750,000 if you are a “corporation”).

Exhibit E – The Congress passes legislation, which the president signs into law, responding to the current COVID-19 pandemic. Included in that law are requirements and funding for federal Inspectors General to oversee unprecedented trillions in federal funding. Oops, not so fast. The president fires a bunch of Inspectors General, showing his contempt for independent oversight. He even includes language in the signing statement stating he finds some of the IG requirements “unreasonable” and will not follow them.

Listen up, lawmakers: You can bet, future presidents who aren’t on your “team” will follow this administration’s playbook. We know from history that there won’t always be a Republican in the White House – heck there wasn’t one there four years ago – so to preserve their constitutional powers all of Congress needs to step up and show up. Defend the intent, purpose, and independence of Inspectors General; demand accountability and excellence from the Executive branch; and require this and future administrations to follow the laws you have enacted.

The nation’s founders made Congress first in the Constitution for a reason, they are the closest to the people and a check on abuse from the Executive. Your constituents expect and deserve you to be that check, especially in the midst of a pandemic and with epic amounts of cash going out the door of the Treasury.

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