This post is dedicated to and was inspired by Norm Ornstein, one of the most highly respected congressional scholars in the world who has written some of the most influential and prescient books ever published on Congress (here, here and here for example).
One of Norm’s chief complaints since the start of the Trump administration has been that the GOP House and Senate majorities have been enabling what the White House has been doing.
Norm’s most scathing criticism has been when its obvious that one or more cabinet departments or agencies and their secretaries, administrators or directors have been violating federal law and Congress has done nothing. (Just think about Scott Pruitt’s multiple scandals at the Environmental Protection Agency and the complete lack of meaningful congressional oversight and you get the picture.)
Here’s one of Norm’s recent devastating tweets on the lack of GOP congressional oversight:
Watching Ron Johnson on @jaketapper Johnson is chairman of the key oversight committee dealing with homeland security and family separation. He has done ZERO oversight. Does nothing but blame Obama. He is a disgrace.
— Norman Ornstein (@NormOrnstein) June 24, 2018
Given that I typically focus on the federal budget, my main Ornstein-inspired complaint not surprisingly is with the GOP-controlled House and Senate Appropriations Committees: They aren’t just enabling Trump but, by refusing to do their jobs, have to be considered complicit in this administration’s nefarious activities.
Serving on appropriations used to be considered a high honor with great power and responsibility. As a member of the committee with the power of the purse, your job was to make sure that tax dollars were spent wisely and legally. As an elite member of an equal branch of the government, you were there to be a check on the president — that is, on every president — whose typical tendency is to try to get around congressional priorities and restrictions.
Since the start of the Trump administration, the House and Senate Appropriations Committees have abandoned their traditional responsibility as a check on the executive branch. Because of their refusal to do anything that smells like oversight, the Trump White House and its cabinet departments and agencies have run amok when it comes to following appropriations law.
Here are just four examples.
Scott Pruitt at the Environmental Protection Agency is obviously exhibit A. He may now be gone, but that doesn’t excuse the appropriations committees from not repeatedly demanding that he explain in detail how his agency’s spending on everything from first class airfare to ridiculous increases in personal security to a “Get Smart” cone-of-silence (see below) in his office complied with EPA’s existing 2018 appropriation.
The committees should also be including language in the fiscal 2019 appropriation specifically prohibiting any funds to be used for these and other similar purposes…But they’re not.
Exhibit B is all the money being spent on implementing the Trump administration’s policy to separate children from their parents at the border. The Departments of Health and Human Services and Homeland Security as well as the Pentagon are almost certainly spending way more than was appropriated to them for this purpose but, so far at least, the only thing we’ve heard from the committees about this is the congressional equivalent of crickets.
In the past, the appropriations committees almost always required the departments to get their permission to shift funds between accounts and required that they at least informally approve all significant transfers away from previously requested and enacted priorities.
Exhibit C is Department of Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson’s excessive shopping spree for new office furniture. Where’s the appropriations’ outrage?
Exhibit D is the House and Senate Appropriations Committees looking the other way when the State Department refused to spend the funds provided to it to investigate Russian meddling in the U.S. elections. As I first explained back in March, this was an action that under the Congressional Budget and Impoundment Control Act absolutely required House and Senate approval.
But the appropriations committees did nothing.
There’s also the committees’ enabling Trump to shut down the federal government this fall.
By slow-walking the fiscal 2019 spending bills rather than demanding they be a priority, the appropriations committees are virtually guaranteeing that a continuing resolution that funds most or all departments and agencies will be needed. That will give Trump substantial additional leverage to get the $25 billion he wants (but the House and Senate have repeatedly refused to provide) to build a wall between the U.S. and Mexico and, with a single veto, shutdown the government.
All of this is total departure from how the appropriations committees used to act.
Allowing the White House to unilaterally spend more or less than is allowed or required makes a mockery of the appropriations process.
Continuing resolutions were always something the committees desperately tried to avoid rather than use as a plan B. Instead, enacting individual appropriations was always their prime goal.
Reprimanding a cabinet official when he or she was repeatedly violating appropriations law was the committees’ standard operating procedure so that the other heads of the other departments and agencies didn’t dare consider doing the same thing.
Norm Ornstein used the “word” disgrace in his tweet above. It’s not a stretch to think that he would agree with my assessment that, these days, it also amply applies to the House and Senate Appropriation Committees.