By Ray Smock
In the political posturing and finger-pointing taking place regarding the “Sequester,” the first victim is the United States Constitution. Congress has ignored its responsibility as a co-equal branch of the government. It is the House and Senate that have the power of the purse, not the President. It is the job of Congress to pass appropriations bills which the president can either sign or veto. The president does not have the power to pick and choose those budget items he likes or dislikes. The money has to be spent, by law, the way Congress says it should be spent.
Today, March 1, the first day the sequester kicks in, House and Senate leaders met with the President but nothing was agreed to that would override the draconian automatic budget cuts that will be felt in the weeks and months ahead. It does seem, however, that another stopgap measure may be forthcoming in a matter of weeks. It was instructive what President Obama and Speaker Boehner said after this meeting.
The President said, “I am not a dictator. I am the President.” He said he could not force Congress “to do the right thing.” His statement is consistent with the Constitution which limits the powers of the President when it comes to matters of the budget. He cannot dictate to Congress. He cannot demand passage of a budget.
If Congress fails to pass regular appropriations bills as part of the normal, regular order of business, then it becomes the President’s job to figure out how to make the executive branch of government, including the military, function as best it can with what money is available. To keep the government from shutting down, Congress has been passing a series of short-term Continuing Resolutions which allow the government to continue to run on appropriations levels that were previously passed. The CR’s are a stopgap measure. They keep things running on a temporary basis while the nation lurches from crisis to crisis.
Speaker Boehner came out of today’s meeting and said that there would be no tax increases in any fix of the budget mess. This too is consistent with the Constitution which gives the power to tax to Congress. It is also a partisan statement reflecting the position of Republicans in Congress to cut government spending as the only way to achieve long-term deficient reduction. The President’s position has been to reduce the deficient through spending cuts and increases in revenue on higher incomes.
Earlier in the week Speaker Boehner blamed the President for failure to lead on the budget crisis. In this instance the charge is inconsistent with the Constitution. The President’s role in the budget process is to recommend expenditures for the executive branch and submit those recommendations to Congress. Then it is up to Congress to decide if the amounts in the President’s budget warrant the funds. The White House has the Office of Management and Budget to recommend expenditures and Congress has the Congressional Budget Office as its way of checking the budget proposed by the President. Usually the President’s budget is declared “dead on arrival” when it reaches Capitol Hill. This has become a standard litany in the dance of legislation no matter which party holds the White House or the Congress.
Speaker Boehner’s statement said the best way to solve the budget crisis was through the regular appropriation process and not with meetings between congressional leaders and the president. It would be a huge step in the right direction if Congress could pass the 13 regular appropriations bills by September or October each year and send them to the President for his signature. But this has not happened for a long time. The budget process has become a form of brinksmanship, going from one crisis to another. This is not what the framers of the Constitution expected, nor is it what we should expect of government today.
One of the favorite expressions of my former boss, Speaker Tip O’Neill was: “If you want efficient government, get yourself a dictatorship.” It was his way of reminding people that the process of making legislation and the process of determining the annual budget of the United States was not designed to be efficient. The Constitution divides power. And it even divides the power of the purse between two houses of Congress.
But the end result, the final product, no matter how imperfect, should be accomplished through the regular order of business with the 13 major appropriations committees doing their jobs. When this process is subverted, for any reason, Congress is not doing its duty as a co-equal branch of government and Congress undermines its own Constitutional authority when it fails to pass regular appropriations bills. I don’t want the President to have the power of the purse. That would lead to dictatorship. We would not need Congress except as a debating society if the power of the purse was lost to the executive branch. This is all the more reason for Congress to do its Constitutional duty to be co-equal partners in governing this nation. This will be difficult to achieve unless the wordCompromise returns in a positive context to the lexicon of legislators.
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