Who's really in charge?
By Greg Walcher
The President thought government spending was out of control, so he vetoed the appropriations bill. Congress was determined to have its way, though, and overrode the veto, restoring funding despite his objections. However, it took ten days for full funding to be restored and, in the meantime, two federal departments were shut down.
That may sound like a common theme today, but the year was 1976 and the President was Gerald Ford. I was an intern on the House side that semester, the first intern my college had ever sent to Capitol Hill, and it seemed like historically wild times. A government shutdown had never happened before. Little did we all know how common it would become in the years ahead.
There were five similar shutdowns during the Carter Administration and nine during the Reagan-Bush years. But Congress always backed down in time to restart the government by Monday morning.
That changed in the 1990s, when Congress called President Clinton's bluff and allowed the entire government to shut down for almost a month over budget disputes. House Republicans largely took the blame in public opinion.
Another two-week shutdown over Obamacare in 2013 is the latest example, and the ongoing prospect has become a political third rail. That's because a shutdown does far more than call attention to a particular dispute – such as the current crisis over funding Planned Parenthood. It also sends workers home, closes parks, holds up people's checks, and possible endangers our security. No one wants the blame for that.
Today almost any major action in Congress to rein in what it views as abuses by the Executive Branch – especially regulatory over-reach by the EPA, IRS, NSA and others – draws the threat of a presidential veto … and a resulting government shutdown. So today leaders in both houses are reassuring everyone that it won't happen, and their critics (some of whom like the idea of an extended vacation for regulators) accuse the leadership of unilateral disarmament. They don't want the "nuclear option" taken off the table.
In fact, there is no reason for a government-wide shutdown ever to happen again. Under the Constitution, Congress has ultimate control not just of the purse-strings, but also of the structure of the appropriations process itself. Believe it or not, the easy solution is to make that process more complicated.
Since the 1920s Congress has organized the spending process parallel to the structure of the executive branch, with separate appropriation bills for different departments and groups. In the modern era that means there are twelve huge spending bills to be passed every year.
There are major disputes over all of them, and in the past decade Congress has passed almost none of them, instead lumping everything into a single gargantuan "continuing resolution" or CR. That means everything is funded and continued at current levels until more detailed bills can be passed – or if more detailed agency-specific bills can be passed.
Of course, that continuing resolution often becomes a "Christmas tree," on which all manner of amendments are hung, adding to the ridiculousness of the process, and resulting in bills so massive that nobody can possibly read them.
A lot of people get angry that big debates over major amendments always seem to take place when there is a CR, often leading to threats of a possible government shutdown if an agreement cannot be reached. However, in the mostly-dysfunctional Congress of recent times, members are forced to put such amendments on the CR, because it is the only bill they know must pass.
That system actually deprives Members of Congress, and the people they represent, of any meaningful power over the operation of government. It means the President and Executive Branch effectively control every aspect of our government: legislation, appropriations, and the interpretation and implementation of laws. Courts could step in, but rarely do, and mostly just defer to "agency discretion."
However, Congress created the mess, and Congress can fix it.
Here is the simple solution – break the twelve annual spending bills into 90 or 100. There are 15 cabinet departments and about 75 independent agencies. A separate bill for each one would bring the size and scope of federal power, programs and funding into sharp focus.
If Congress wanted to stop funding the Legal Services Corporation, public broadcasting, Amtrak or any number of other programs and agencies that candidates often claim they would abolish, it could simply fail to pass that particular bill. Doing so would cause nothing else to shut down.
If Congress wanted to rein in the Environmental Protection Agency, it could easily fund the agency – but omit funding for the new "Waters of the US" regulation, the proposed "Clean Power Plan" that would all but ban coal, the new ozone rules that will turn thousands of US counties into air quality "nonattainment" areas, the hundreds of millions that EPA gives to special interest groups that promote its regulations, or projects like the botched "cleanup" that poisoned the Animas and San Juan Rivers last month.
That way, if the President wanted to veto the bill over such issues, he would not be shutting down the entire government, just the EPA. Millions of Americans might be perfectly OK with that.
Greg Walcher is president of the Natural Resources Group and author of "Smoking Them Out: The Theft of the Environment and How to Take it Back." He is a former secretary of the Colorado Department of Natural Resources.