We’re a Broken Record on Congressional Oversight of Federal Spending

Weekly WastebasketWe’re a Broken Record on Congressional Oversight of Federal SpendingLawmakers need to step up and write better legislation.

Some may call Taxpayers for Common Sense a broken record, as we continue to point out fractures in the Congressional appropriations process.

This pandemic is a time of true national emergency, we get that. (Although policymakers’ current lethargic response to the crisis seems to indicate they think otherwise.) But TCS will continue to point out the myriad flaws when lawmakers rush to shovel money out the door in response – as they did in March with the CARES Act. Congressional oversight and direction is key to maintaining any semblance of fiscal controls. But, Congress keeps dropping the ball and allowing huge sums to be appropriated without proper parameters on how they may be spent. Like ABBA sings, “Money, Money, Money, must be funny, in a rich man’s world.”

Exhibit A: The Secretary of Agriculture’s Walking Around Money. When COVID lockdowns roiled ag markets in the spring, Washington committed  $30 billion to compensate farming and ranching businesses for COVID-19 related losses. Six months later, nearly $20 billion remains unspent. While the Secretary recently announced how he plans to distribute $14 billion of those dollars, this second round of payments still leaves out in the cold a majority of the “producers that supply local food systems, including farmers markets, restaurants, and schools” experiencing the greatest losses in this pandemic. Meanwhile those lucky enough to receive the Secretary’s favor can get up to $500,000, far in excess of the $125,000 annual limit Congress imposed on farm subsidies in the 2018 farm bill, and can qualify even without stepping foot on their farm if they claim to “actively manage” it. Congress’s response to this frontal assault on efforts to direct farm subsidies based on need? Including in the Continuing Resolution $30 billion more in borrowing authority for the Secretary with no new strings attached. It gives whole new meaning to “Green” Acres.

Next up in our parade of pandemic priorities gone awry, the recent revelations that $1 billion in money for the Pentagon, as part of the CARES Act, that was supposed to be spent, “…to prevent, prepare for, and respond to coronavirus, domestically or internationally…” Now, what does that language mean to you? If you’re like us, you think that preventing coronavirus might be N-95 masks or other Personal Protective Equipment. Or, if you’re thinking really creatively, it might mean that the Defense Health Program should get into the vaccine development process. Think that classic Police song, “Don’t Stand so Close to Me”.

What does it probably not mean to you? Spare parts for jet engines, body armor, or Army dress uniforms. What in the Sam Hill is a dress uniform going to do to prevent, prepare, or respond to a pandemic? Most of the people we know aren’t dressing up much these days. Probably the Army is making greater use of its BDUs than the fancier forms of dress.

These were Defense Production Act funds. If you look at the history there, these type of funds were about using civilian industry for military production in a time of emergency. This is a different type of emergency than was envisioned, but when the Pentagon was asked to shift military production to help society in the midst of a pandemic, they turned around and used it buy more military stuff from their buddies.

All taxpayers should be concerned about special interests like the contractors who make jet engines turning pandemic spending to their advantage. But we should also push back on Congress abdicating its oversight responsibilities by appropriating $1 billion with such tragically vague language that the Pentagon can spend it on body armor instead of respirators and nasal swabs.

Congress’ Article I responsibilities include the power to appropriate your federal tax dollars and ensure they are spent in accordance with federal appropriations law. Unfortunately, it has slowly abdicated its responsibilities. Whither the Antideficiency Act? The Impoundment Control Act?

The Rule of Law matters. Congress needs to act accordingly.

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