It’s Time for Congress to Curb the President’s Spending Power

US
President Joe Biden speaks at the White House in Washington, D.C., January 25, 2021. (Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)
Bipartisan measures could force the executive branch to be transparent and accountable in its use of taxpayer dollars.

If you’re measuring in dollars, the stakes for congressional oversight of the executive branch have never been higher. The Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget estimates that the federal government committed or disbursed $3.6 trillion of COVID relief between last April and this April, with $2.3 trillion of enacted aid still left to be doled out. Just before Memorial Day weekend, President Biden proposed a historically large $6 trillion budget, which includes his American Jobs and American Families plans. While such documents never become law exactly as proposed, they reflect a new reality: Congress has never approved so much spending in so little time, and it is likely to continue debating ideas with record-setting price tags into the distant future. Now is the perfect time for legislators to reassert their control of the purse strings and restore the proper constitutional balance of power.

There are now several measures before Congress that would allow lawmakers of both parties to ensure that the executive branch is releasing funds as Congress directs it to. They provide more transparency for taxpayers, more protections for government watchdogs, and more enforcement mechanisms for lawmakers. Many of them were introduced by Democrats, but many of them also have Republican cosponsors or draw from Republican proposals introduced in previous Congresses. And while Democrats introduced them to push back against President Trump’s abuses of executive power, these are responses to accruals of executive power over multiple administrations of both parties — and will guard against the abuses of future Democratic and Republican presidents alike.

Take the Congressional Power of the Purse Act (CPPA), which was first introduced in 2020. It has three parts. The first ensures that money that Congress appropriates is spent in a timely, proper, and transparent manner. When it was proposed in the Senate Budget Committee by Senator Chris Van Hollen (D., Md.) during the Trump administration, as an amendment to a larger budget-reform bill, Republican senators Lindsey Graham, Pat Toomey, and David Perdue voted for it. The second part is simply about transparency, helping ensure that Congress knows where, when, and how taxpayers dollars are spent. And the third part is based on a national emergency-reform bill by Senator Mike Lee (R., Utah) that passed out of a Republican-controlled committee last year by a bipartisan 11–2 vote. Again, these are ideas that prominent Republicans supported with a Republican president in office. Surely, those Republicans’ support hasn’t wavered now that a Democratic president is engaged in unprecedented spending.

CPPA is just one part of the Protecting Our Democracy Act (PODA), a package of more than a dozen institutional-reform bills that Democrats introduced late in 2020. Not every one of these bills relates to fiscal oversight. But the ones that do, even indirectly, complement CPPA’s intent to reinforce Congress’s authority over spending matters. Consider some examples.

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Congress created inspectors general in 1976 to find waste, fraud, and abuse within government, and to give the executive and legislative branches the tools to fight it. Presidents of both parties have historically been ambivalent about IGs, because these watchdogs often reveal truths that are politically inconvenient or damaging to a sitting administration. President Obama, for instance, was slow to fill inspector-general roles in his administration and received bipartisan pushback for it. PODA has several provisions that would protect inspectors general from political interference and ensure that Congress has eyes and ears on the executive branch. PODA also has provisions that would prevent inspectors general from being fired without cause, require congressional notification when they are removed, and allow for the appointment of temporary IGs if a president fails to fill IG vacancies with permanent appointees. Surely in a time of unprecedented government spending and limited congressional oversight, Congress would want as much help as possible from inspectors general in identifying improperly spent money.

Similarly, there are provisions to protect whistleblowers. PODA includes the Whistleblower Protection Improvement Act (WPIA), comprehensive legislation implementing a number of best-practice improvements to whistleblower law that at past and present have earned bipartisan support. This includes a prohibition on federal agencies’ starting retaliatory investigations against whistleblowers, better protections for the personal information of individuals who blow the whistle on fraud and abuse in government, and an extension of existing protections to federal employees not covered under current law. Whistleblowers are the often-unsung heroes of government accountability, and worse than being underappreciated, they’re frequently subjected to abuse, harassment, and mistreatment from powerful officials. Whistleblower protections are taxpayer protections, and it’s long past time that many of these reforms were enacted.

Taxpayers should have the right to claw back funds spent fraudulently or abusively; Biden administration officials who violate the law or ethics should be held to account and removed from a position of public trust; and effective oversight now prevents waste, fraud, abuse, and misuse of taxpayer funds later.

In short, Republicans should take this unique opportunity that Democrats are giving them to hold the Biden administration, and the executive branch in general, more accountable than ever before. And the above proposals are certainly not the end of reforms that congressional Republicans could embrace. A 2017 bill by Representative Darrell Issa to improve executive-branch compliance with congressional subpoenas was adopted by Democrats in 2019. There are also bipartisan reforms that would address presidential authorizations for the use of military force, the politicization of the Department of Justice, and other areas of recent concern. This could be the moment in which both parties agree, for their own reasons, to increase Congress’s power to oversee the executive branch. It is a politically feasible project for now, and it’s vital to the future of the nation.

It is true that the Democrats will focus their messaging on abuses in the Trump administration, but that shouldn’t stop Republicans from seeing how these policies could stop abuses in a Biden administration (or could have stopped abuses in the Obama administration). For what it’s worth, Republicans may come to recognize that the Democrats may have been right about some of the Trump administration’s abuses, abuses of a sort they would never accept from a Democratic president. It is time to seize the opportunity to achieve some real conservative policy wins and constrain the Biden administration. Can Republicans do it? We hope so.

Soren Dayton is a policy advocate at Protect Democracy and has worked for Republicans in Congress and on campaigns at the congressional and presidential levels. Andrew Lautz is the director of federal policy at the National Taxpayers Union, a nonprofit working to advance taxpayer interests on tax, spending, and regulatory policy.

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