House Budget Committee: Protect Congress’ Power of the Purse & the Rule of Law

The Article I Renaissance continued at the House Budget Committee’s hearing on Protecting Congress’ Power of the Purse.  Ranking Member Womack noted budgeting is fundamental to government and that the process doesn’t work. (He noted the recommendations of the recent Joint Committee on Budget Reform failed to pass).  Members and witnesses engaged in a multi-hour discussion that featured serious discussion and concrete proposals for reform.

GAO’s General Counsel Thomas Armstrong testified that federal law needs to be strengthened to ensure the legislative branch can get information from the executive. He noted GAO has had “difficulty getting timely responses from agencies, and, in some cases, we have not received responses at all.”  He a number of fixes to reclaim Congress’ power of the purse (see page 9 of his written testimony), some of which are included below:

  • Require agencies to respond to GAO letters within a certain time period and to impose penalties or a reporting requirement on agencies that fail to respond.
  • Amend the Antideficiency Act to require agencies to notify Congress when GAO finds a violation. 
  • Enact a law to clarify that violations of statutory restrictions must be reported to Congress the same as violations of appropriations laws. (The DOJ’s Office of Legal Counsel has opined that agencies only have to report violations of appropriations laws and not statutory laws; this contradicts GAO’s view.)
  • Require DOJ to annually review GAO reports on Antideficiency Act violations to determine whether criminal charges should be brought. 

Josh Chafetz provided 5 recommendations to strengthen Congress’s role, provided an interesting history of budget power and noted the need for increased staff capacity, as well as the good work of the Fix Congress committee.  His recommendations were: (1) greater use of zeroing out funding for specific offices; (2) appropriations bills contain non-severability clauses; the addition of criminal penalties to the Impoundment Control Act; tightening the language surrounding the acceptance of voluntary services; and (5) restoring the legislative capacities of the House and Senate.

Eloise Pasachoff explained three presidential budgeting tools “that are especially pervasive, consequential, and opaque.” She noted that while presidents do need some flexibility, the power can be misused.  Congress can amend the two key statutes – the Antideficiency Act and the Impoundment Control Act – to “promote transparency and close loopholes.” 

Phillip Joyce proposed changing the Budget Committees to a Committee on National Priorities, which would include as members the chairs and ranking members of the appropriations and tax-writing committees, chairs and RMs of major authorizing committees, and members of party leadership. Congress should also support and defend CBO and GAO, take oversight seriously by ensuring that programs work and increase staff so Congress wasn’t at a competitive disadvantage. Dr. Joyce noted Congress’ poor record on the budget was a self-inflicted wound that weakened the institution. His testimony concludes, “if the Congress does not reassert this authority through law and action, it will inevitably lead to the further transfer of power to the executive branch.”  

GAO publishes a multivolume treatise titled Principles of Federal Appropriations Law (often referred to as the “Red Book”), which is the premier reference on appropriations law matters for members of Congress and their staffs, agency practitioners, the federal judiciary, and for those outside of the federal government.