Congress holds the power of the purse. That is, they decide where to spend federal money. The Constitution expressly provides that “No Money shall be drawn from the Treasury, but in Consequence of Appropriations made by Law.” The process is convoluted, opaque, and subject to exceptions and personalities. The purpose of this article is to provide the big picture, show the immense importance of these decisions, and the impact on the Legislative Branch.
Congress controls a massive amount of money. For Fiscal Year 2020 (October 1, 2019 to September 30, 2020), the budget is about $4.7 Trillion. $2.8 Trillion is mandatory spending (legally required, like Social Security payments). $1.4 Trillion is discretionary spending (Congress can spend the money on anything). About $500 Billion is interest on the national debt. And, of course, there’s emergency spending, like the recently enacted Coronavirus legislation totaling trillions of dollars (with more to come).
A president will appoint more than 4,000 individuals to serve in an administration, yet “there is no single source of data on political appointees serving in the executive branch that is publicly available, comprehensive, and timely,” according to the Government Accountability Office in a March 2019 report.
Instead, these positions are compiled and published exactly once every four years in a congressional document known as the Plum Book (officially the United States Government Policy and Supporting Positions). This book is published only in December after a presidential election (before the president even gets sworn in) and includes important data for each position, including title, salary and location.
Activity on remote proceedings for the past week fills two pages on our ongoing timeline. Sunday was not a day of rest, as the New Dems Coalition sent a second letter to House Leadership, urging them to bring a remote voting resolution to the floor no later than May 4 (today).
CRS issued an updated report on OTA on April 29, 2020, that “describes the OTA’s historical mission, organizational structure, funding, staffing, operations, and perceived strengths and weakness. The report concludes with a discussion of issues and options surrounding reestablishing the agency or its functions.”
There continues to be a pollyannish approach to this pandemic, especially on the part of federal lawmakers. People hold unsupported beliefs: COVID-19 is just like the flu, you don’t need masks, it will burn itself out by summer, it doesn’t strike children, having COVID-19 confers immunity, there will be a vaccine next year, and so on. Some of these beliefs we know are wrong, others are optimistic assumptions.
We won’t know when COVID-19 will end and we have major gaps in our understanding of the disease. Contingency planning includes preparing for a range of possible outcomes, including less optimistic scenarios: what if it causes permanent disability? What if a vaccine takes a long time? Proper planning should also address confounding problems: what if there’s a hurricane? What if a Supreme Court justice dies? What if air travel stops?
It has been another tough week just about everywhere. We hope you and yours are staying safe. This newsletter is becoming harder and harder to write, but we hope it is helpful as we work together to keep our democracy.
Read this: the Washington Post’s Mike Debonis and Paul Kane have a superb article that you really should read: “Sidelined by coronavirus pandemic, Congress cedes stage and authority to Trump.” They don’t have everything — we worked awfully hard on our report addressing the issues raised by House Rules Dems — but they expertly illustrate how power is shifting to the Executive branch as Congress has made itself unable to act.
• Speaker Pelosi is continuing to dig in on remote deliberations during the COVID-19 pandemic, and dismissed calls from the rank and file: “We’re not there yet, and we’re not going to be there no matter how many letters somebody sends in.”
• Perhaps the letters she referenced were those from the House New Dems and Problem Solvers Caucuses. New Dems urged that “Committees should … utiliz[e] the technology solutions identified by the House Committee on Administration to hold virtual legislative hearings and meetings as soon as possible.” The Problem Solvers called for “alternative ways” for the House to function that boil down to different versions of remote deliberations.
•A new poll said “80% of Americans support Members of Congress being able to vote ‘remotely’ during the coronavirus pandemic,” and only 10% oppose. Members of Congress must be feeling the pressure to get back to work.
After the 2008 financial collapse and subsequent stimulus, the RAT Board — Recovery Accountability and Transparency Board — was established to track itemized spending of $840 Billion disbursed by 29 federal agencies. Funding was tracked by zip code, agency, recipient, and funding category.