Sep 17 2014
At some point today or tomorrow the Senate will hastily consider – and likely pass – a massive, hodgepodge spending bill to fund every last department and program within the federal government... even those we know don’t work. The alternative – if you can call it that – is to deny funding for every last department and program within the federal government... even those we know are essential.
All or nothing: these are our only options. Government on autopilot or government without an engine.
The problem, Mr./Madam President, is that by funding the federal government through a massive, patchwork spending bill, we force the American people to choose between two bad options: pay for everything in government or pay for nothing at all; either fund the entire federal government tomorrow at the exact same level as today, or fund nothing within the federal government... not even to pay our soldiers or our judges... not even to provide care for our veterans or support our most vulnerable.
This kind of all-or-nothing proposition is dysfunctional, it’s anti-democratic, and it prevents Congress from doing its job – which, I remind my colleagues, is to represent the American people and to be faithful stewards of taxpayer money.
During the month of August I held a long series of town hall meetings across my home state of Utah. Whether I was in Cache County, in the northern reaches of the state, or down in the opposite corner, in Washington County, the people of Utah were clear about what they wanted: they demanded action.
Their concerns weren’t always the same – some worried about public lands, others were anxious about the economy, and many were troubled by the crisis at the border.
But they were all looking for answers – for solutions – from someone. Everywhere I went, they asked me: “What are you going to do? What are you going to do to get our country back on track?”
And I would tell them: as a matter of law and of constitutional authority, members of Congress have certain tools to address all of these concerns, but none is greater than the power of the purse. This is the power to allocate money to fund government operations: it’s what enables Congress – and only Congress – to reform dysfunctional government.
Encompassed within the power to give money is the power to withhold money. In this case, the power of the purse is the most potent and effective instrument Congress can use to hold the Executive branch accountable.
So when the Administration fails to follow the law – as this Administration has done so frequently – Congress can demand answers and accountability by using the power of the purse as leverage.
After several of these town hall conversations I began to notice that, at this point in my answer, most people began to look hopeful that something could actually get done in Washington.
But then I’d have to break the bad news. I’d have to tell them that all those things their representatives should be able to do – like fixing broken government programs, ensuring the solvency of Social Security and Medicaid, and impeding lawless actions by the Executive branch – simply cannot get done because the Democratic leadership in the Senate insists that our federal government operate on autopilot.
This is the problem with the CR: when Congress has only one opportunity to exercise its power of the purse – by voting for or against an all-or-nothing spending package – Congress has essentially no opportunity to exercise its power of the purse.
In the CR we will consider tomorrow, there are several provisions that deserve their own consideration and debate – such as reauthorizing the Export-Import Bank, extending the Internet Tax Freedom Act, and authorizing military action in Syria. None of these measures – and certainly not something that could put American lives at risk – should be hurried through on an all-or-nothing vote.
This is why the CR matters for everyone in this country: it is the principal reason our government is so dysfunctional and so unaccountable.
A government on autopilot leaves Congress paralyzed… powerless to implement meaningful government reforms, and powerless to hold the President and his administration responsible for their actions.
This is not how our government is supposed to operate.
It doesn’t have to be this way. There is a better way.
As recently as fiscal year 2006, Congress passed eleven free-standing appropriations bills. To put that in context, that’s more than Congress has passed for all fiscal years since then, combined.
The House still routinely passes free-standing appropriations measures. For fiscal year 2015, the House has passed seven such bills. The Senate, by contrast, has passed zero. Not only has the Senate passed none of its own, it has refused to pass – or even vote on – any of those passed by the House.
Before the Democratic leadership took control of the Senate, Congress would spend most of the spring and summer of each year discussing, debating, and eventually figuring out how much taxpayer money to spend and on what.
Congress would consider separate spending bills, one-by-one. Each of these bills would allocate money to fund the departments, agencies and programs within a certain area of the government – like defense or transportation, homeland security or health care. And each spending bill originated in one of the corresponding subcommittees in the House and Senate.
This is what we call “the appropriations process,” and it made sense that it would take up most of our time, because, as members of Congress, we have a solemn obligation to represent the people and to be faithful stewards of taxpayer money.
That is how Congress is supposed to operate, according to its own rules, according to historical precedent, and, more to the point, according to common sense.
But times have changed. What Congress used to deliberate on for months, we now rush through in an afternoon... without opportunity for amendment or full debate. What used to be the subject of open and robust debate is now trivialized and treated as a formality.
Mr./Madame President, the American people deserve better. Indeed, as I discovered while visiting with people from one corner of Utah to the other, the American people demand we do better.
I think we can and we must.