The Power of the Purse

Posted on: September 16, 2015

By Tom Gow

“Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., said Congress has a duty to decide how money should be spent and can’t see how Obama would be able to say Republicans were shutting down the government when they were offering to fund all of it except for Planned Parenthood.” — Roll Call (9-10-15)

Senator Sessions points to an important strategy regarding how Congress should be using its power of the purse in today’s political climate, a climate dominated by an Establishment media that supports big government. Washington’s Roll Call continued by quoting Sessions directly:

There is no reason whatsoever we should fund Planned Parenthood. If you acquiesce and acknowledge the president is correct then Congress has no power whatsoever over the purse.… I just don’t see how that’s a losing issue. I think the president would look awful. He’s going to veto the Defense bill? He’s going to veto all these other bills? …We don’t need to be hiding under the table.

Sessions was referring to the president’s threat to veto any bill that would defund Planned Parenthood. And the Establishment media, the GOP leadership, and liberal politicians have created the impression that the only alternative to an unpopular government shutdown is a negotiated compromise or caving in to liberal demands.

A month earlier, liberal New York Senator Charles Schumer, the Number 3 Democrat, had made just such a claim — that liberal programs must be regarded as untouchable:

“You cannot hold the entire government hostage to make your ideological point and try to get your ideological way, and so Republicans are knowingly putting us on a path to shut down the government if they pursue this reckless strategy. And let me just say, it’s not just on this issue, they have four or five others. Any of them will be a path to shutdown and shutdown will fall on their shoulders. If they try to take hostages. If they try to add extraneous riders and say you have to keep those riders … they’re headed for a government shutdown,” Schumer said. “We hope they are not. We hope they’ve learned their lessons.” — Roll Call (8-4-15), “McConnell Says No Shutdowns as September Agenda Takes Shape”

However, Sessions was correctly pointing out that the Congress really holds the upper hand. It merely needs to use its power of the purse correctly, which it has not.

Power of the Purse

In The Federalist, No. 58, Father of the Constitution James Madison explained the awesome unused power of the purse, which the Constitution assigns to the House of Representatives:

The House of Representatives can not only refuse, but they alone can propose the supplies requisite for the support of the government. They, in a word, hold the purse — that powerful instrument [for] finally reducing … all the overgrown prerogatives of the other branches of the government. This power over the purse may, in fact, be regarded as the most complete and effectual weapon with which any constitution can arm the immediate representatives of the people for obtaining a redress of every grievance, and for carrying into effect every just and salutary measure.

Of course, the politics are more complicated today than in Madison’s time. Now many Americans depend on various federal programs and most Americans depend on the Establishment-controlled media for their information. In 2013, that media put the blame on a House unwilling to compromise, as responsible for shutting the government down, and the House backed down.

But the House had long ago forfeited the leverage Madison spoke about by regularly passing last-minute omnibus appropriations bills allowing the Senate or President to refuse the entire package as unacceptable. Instead, what a determined branch must do is insist that the other branches deal with the 12 individual appropriations bills. Even continuing resolutions, should they really become necessary and advantageous, should target only specific areas of appropriation.

Indeed, Sessions’ argument regarding how a determined Congress could defund Planned Parenthood needs to be heralded and applied to roll back a host of unconstitutional programs and agencies.

Of course, effective use of this power presumes that the House of Representatives has the backbone to roll back an out-of-control federal government, using the Constitution as its guide. Ultimately, that kind of backbone has to come from an informed public back home

Realistically, there is insufficient will in Congress today, even among Republicans, to roll back and eliminate unconstitutional programs and departments or to even defund many clearly subversive programs such as Planned Parenthood. To support that conclusion requires an understanding of the Establishment forces that dominate the leadership of both parties and the political environment that regularly drives the actions of most congressmen.

The Right Thing to Do

Nevertheless, Americans who want to see real change in Washington need to understand the right way for Congress to leverage its power over the purse in today’s adverse political climate. They must then insist that their congressman set the example even if he or she stands alone.

As a start, that means rejecting any omnibus appropriations bills.

Next, congressmen need to honor their oath to uphold the Constitution (and its limits) by supporting only individual appropriations bills designed to restore constitutional government.

That does not mean every supportable bill must go cold turkey on all unconstitutional spending. What it does means is that any appropriations bill deserving support must be part of a serious plan to roll back or eliminate unconstitutional spending and programs.

Many unconstitutional programs should be curtailed immediately. Let America enjoy and be encouraged by the benefits of early relief from their burden. Still other programs may need to be phased out over a few years to reduce disruptive hardships and to honor prior government commitments. But that action must be initiated immediately, not deferred to future Congresses.

In short, we need to reject the widespread notion that congressmen must compromise on vital principle, such as their oath to uphold the Constitution, in order to cut the best deal possible. That rationalization just keeps America on a route to disaster.

To be sure, more congressmen setting the right example means, for the present, that the GOP leadership will continue to build its majority with liberal support. The opening Roll Call report concluded: “[P]retty much every major budget deal since Republicans took back the House has required the votes of at least some of Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi’s flock.”

But those congressmen who set the right example also help drive the real solution — more congressmen marching to the drumbeat of the Constitution supported and pressured by informed constituents.

There is no constitutional justification for the Department of Housing and Urban Development ushered in by President Johnson, for a Department of Education, or for a Department of Health and Human Services — to cite just a few examples of where the Federal government has been allowed to exceed its authority.

America cannot survive with congressmen who accept these prior socialist inroads and destructive decisions as irreversible and work only to prevent the next socialist usurpation. As Napoleon correctly observed: “The purely defensive is doomed to defeat.”

No, the real solution must come from building an informed electorate that will demand that Congress use its power of the purse to restore the federal government to its constitutionally authorized limits. In the face of media misdirection, building that informed electorate is no easy task.

But it can be done by an organized minority of Americans following a sound plan and leadership, such as Freedom First Society offers.   And with the mess we’re in, there is simply no easy way out.

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