Members of Congress, do you want to, “Double your pleasure and double your fun?” Forget about Doublemint Gum – Taxpayers for Common Sense has ideas for you! After at least four years of continually ceding your Congressional authorities to a grasping Executive Branch, it’s time for legislators to reclaim their powers by exercising oversight and demanding transparency.
But before we turn to the legislative branch, we’ll start with the White House. President Biden needs to turn the clock back to a time when the Executive Branch agreed to basic Congressional oversight. This includes the simplest of things such as: sending administration officials to oversight hearings and responding to subpoenas and other requests for information. We also produced a new “Four Point Six” set of recommendations to the Biden Administration. (He’s the 46th president.) As we said at the time, “This is our set of 4.6 recommendations the Biden Administration should follow in various areas of governance to promote policies to restore fiscal balance, increase transparency and accountability, and reduce the deficit.”
That’s one part of the equation – Executive departments who agree that transparency and oversight by Congress is an important part of civil society. Now, what can Congress do for its part?
First, Congress must reassert its Constitutionally-granted primacy in the spending of federal appropriations. This is often short-handed as the “power of the purse.” TCS joined several other organizations, from various points on the political spectrum, in a letter urging Congress that protecting those powers and otherwise maintaining Congressional authorities, granted in the Constitution, should be a bipartisan issue. The letter urges both transparency and maintaining legislative authorities. It talks about some of our favorite issues: the Antideficiency Act, the Impoundment Control Act, and the Purpose Statute. Yeah, we’re nerdy like that. Basically, these three laws lay out that federal appropriations may not be spent in advance or excess of a Congressional appropriation, that the president may not simply refuse to spend money as it was lawfully appropriated, and that the money must be spent for the actual purpose for which it was appropriated. Those are the three legs of the stool giving Congress control over the expenditure of your tax dollars.
As we’ve said many times, the rule of law matters. Congress must re-establish its primacy in matters of federal spending.
And part of that is making federal spending more accountable and transparent. Lawmakers should quickly adopt the Congressional Budget Justification Transparency Act, introduced earlier this week by Sens. Peters (D-MI) and Portman (R-OH). A version of this bill passed the House and made it through the Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee last Congress. Echoing a recommendation in our Four Point Six plan it calls for all the federal agency budget justification documents to be made easily understandable and located on one central website, in addition to the agency’s website.
What are we talking about?
Well, while the major volumes the president submits as his budget request may total thousands of pages, they are only the proverbial tip of the budget iceberg. There are tens of thousands of documents backing up and explaining each budget item at the agencies. The problem is that, for the public, those thousands of pages are scattered across agency websites and often unintelligible. The Peters and Portman bill would bring some order and understandability to the chaos.
Lawmakers should build off this commonsense proposal and demand that the administration develop a “Citizen’s Budget” as is done in other countries that uses graphs, charts, and infographics to explain the revenue, spending, deficits, and debt in the budget as well as past budget performance and projections.
Lastly oversight. None of this matters if lawmakers don’t hold the executive accountable by conducting oversight on how money is spent, whether it is effective and make adjustments to policies and programs going forward. Congress writes the checks, they need to ensure money is being spent wisely and appropriately as well.