Congress Could Use The Budget Process To Stop Trump’s Child Separation Policy

The House and Senate could use the congressional budget process to stop or at least express its strong displeasure over the Trump administration’s policy to separate children from their parents, especially if an immigration bill can’t be enacted.

This post was triggered by this tweet this morning from Emily Holubowich, executive director of Coalition for Health Funding and a self-professed federal budget nerd.

From a strictly procedural point of view (I am not at all minimizing the morality and humanity of Trump’s actions), this is the exact right question: Where’s Trump getting the money to spend on this if dollars weren’t appropriated for it in the fiscal 2018 omnibus appropriation enacted in March?

And why aren’t the House and Senate Appropriations Committees asking this question?

Federal departments and agencies typically have some limited discretion to move money around by transferring and reprogramming funds from one account to another. But that usually requires at least the tacit approval of the appropriations committees.

At least in theory, therefore, these committees could tell the federal departments that are implementing the Trump child separation policy that the use of other funds for this purpose isn’t acceptable.

The appropriations committees could also:

  1. Compel the secretaries of the departments of Homeland Security and Health and Human Services to testify at what would be extremely difficult hearings that would be embarrassing (to say the least) for the White House.
  2. Include language in the fiscal 2019 appropriations now working their way through the legislative process that prevents any funds from being used for child separation.
  3. Reduce funding for these departments if the appropriations committees are ignored.
  4. Include language in the fiscal 2019 continuing resolution that will be needed by October 1 preventing any funds from being used for child separation.

This could all be futile. The cabinet secretaries could refuse to testify and Trump almost certainly would veto appropriations or a CR with this prohibition (although the votes could easily exist to override).

In addition, given the Trump administration’s already demonstrated willingness to ignore federal budget laws when it wants, there’s no guarantee whatsoever that it would let a congressional prohibition on spending funds stop it from doing what it wants.

Congress isn’t likely do any of these things. The appropriations committees long ago ceded their authority as federal spending watchdogs and the GOP House and Senate majorities haven’t yet demonstrated any willingness to take on Trump on this issue.

But the path is definitely there if the situation changes.




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