Of Congress and Appropriations

 

Photo by Jomar on Unsplash

 

Why is Congress not legislating?  Congress is the national legislature.  The Constitution vests Congress with exclusive legislative rights.  Then why will the Members of Congress not legislate?

Among the exclusive legislative jobs for Congress is to appropriate funds for the operations of government.  This is a regular, annual task.  This must be well understood:  for Congress to fail to fund the operations of the federal government is a dereliction of duty of the highest order.  Nothing prevents the Members from doing that duty, and no one else can do it.

The President cannot legislate, least of all appropriate.  That limitation is firmly placed as a check on executive power.  The President may not write a single word of legislation, he may not appropriate one penny.  If the agencies of government are not funded, it is because Congress has failed to fund them.  No one else can fund them, and no one else can fail to fund them.  Currently, Congress has not done its job for much of the federal government, and the Members of Congress have no excuse, no justification for the failure.

The President can make recommendations to Congress, he can ask for appropriations.  Congress can heed or disregard such recommendations and requests entirely at its discretion.  They have no effect except as Congress chooses.

Some might say, but what about the President’s veto?  Can he not refuse to sign an appropriation, and send the bill back to Congress?  Indeed he can.  He may send it back, but he cannot change it, he cannot add or remove a single word.  Congress can decide whether to change the legislation, do nothing, or vote to override the veto.  Those decisions are entirely in the hands of the legislators.

It is no excuse for legislators to say that they cannot find sufficient agreement whether to override a veto or even to pass a law.  Whose fault is that?  True representative legislatures (not the rubber stamps of communist dictatorships) have always had the difficult job of dealing with disagreement.  That is why we have legislatures with numerous members.  It is expected that there will be varying points of view.  The legislators’ responsibility is to resolve these differences sufficient to pass necessary laws.

Appropriations for government operations are necessary laws.  They are also among the most malleable of questions.  When the consideration is money for government projects, there is a compromise to be found.  We will not pass anything is not an acceptable option.  It is legislative failure.

Presidents may say that they will veto a bill that does not meet certain standards.  That is a President’s prerogative, but the Constitution is careful to make it a surmountable obstacle.  The Members of Congress, working through the legislative process, may either find a sufficient majority to pass a law that the President will not veto or a sufficient unity of view that will allow them to override the veto.  Doing nothing until the President changes his view is dereliction.

Presidents have had vetoes overridden.  Franklin Delano Roosevelt, a Democrat, vetoed 635 Acts of Congress passed by strong majorities of fellow Democrats.  Congress overrode several of those.  Ronald Reagan vetoed 78 Acts of Congress, several of which were overridden.

Most often, a significant number of Members will sympathize with the President’s view.  That calls for legislative efforts to find a formula reasonable enough that the President does not reasonably veto it.  That is what the national legislature traditionally does and is expected to do.  That is what this Congress has so far failed to do.  That failure is entirely the fault of the Members of Congress.

Of Presidents and Derelicts

Barack Obama is no fan of the Constitution. He has been known to criticize it for its focus on limiting government, for telling governments what they can and cannot do. He prefers a Constitution that focuses more on telling governments what they should do, at least telling governments to do what he would like, including seeing to the “redistribution of wealth,” or what he calls elsewhere “redistributive change.”

Of course, that is a mischaracterization. Not a mischaracterization of Obama’s views but of what the Constitution says. It does limit government, but it also gives government specific responsibilities and the power to exercise those responsibilities. Article I, Section 8 provides a very clear list of the federal government’s duties. It is noteworthy that those enumerated responsibilities and powers are in the Article that establishes the Congress. The list includes such things as providing for the common defense, borrowing and paying government debts, regulating foreign and interstate commerce, establishing standards for weights and measures, and so forth.

There are plenty of other provisions that limit the powers of the government and how it operates. The Constitution is a balance of governmental duties within a structure intended carefully to limit the government. As a limited government our Republic has prospered. It has struggled either when its duties were neglected (as in the days of President Buchanan, who did nothing while he watched state after state rebel from the Union) or when the limitations have been eroded (as we have witnessed through much of the twentieth century and in the first 14 years of the twenty-first).

The President has specific powers and duties, too, nearly all of which are carefully linked with the role of the Congress. For example, while the President does not make the laws—Article I, Section 1 gives “All legislative Powers” exclusively to the Congress—the President is authorized to make proposals to Congress and has the authority to veto legislation (but not change it) that Congress has approved. Once an act of Congress becomes law, the President then has the explicit obligation to, “take Care that the Laws be fully executed” (Article II, Section 3).

Note the words, “fully executed”. The President takes an oath to fulfill those duties, and nowhere in oath or Constitution is the President authorized to execute the laws only as much as he likes or agrees with them. Once something has become a law, the President may not set aside this or that part of the law or decide that he will only enforce the law so far. His obligation is to take Care that the laws are fully executed.

Average Americans may not like this or that provision of law, but we are not at liberty to ignore any law that applies to us just because we do not like it. The President is not exempt from that common responsibility of all citizens, either. As the chief government executive, who sought to hold his high office of public responsibility, he is even more obligated not only to obey the laws but to execute them, fully. The President may not make the laws, he may not amend the laws, he may not change the laws, and he may not disregard the laws. His duty is to execute the laws, and when he does not he is derelict in his duties.

This is all in accordance with the important division of labor, the separation of powers that the Founders put into the very structure of the Constitution to combat the tendency of all humans to abuse power once it comes into their hands. By dividing the power of government among three separate but coequal branches, dividing legislative power even further between House and Senate, and yet again separating government power between federal and state governments, the Founders went to clear and elaborate lengths to create checks and balances.

Under the American system of government no branch, no person, no group of people in government, are to be able to do very much on their own without getting the other elements of government to go along. Where they are not able to agree, where there is no consensus, for the safety of our freedoms government is prevented by constitutional law from moving forward unless substantial consensus among the different branches can be reached. Those checks and balances again and again, throughout the more than two centuries of our Constitution, have forced the very human people in government to revisit their differences and come to terms with one another, however much they may disagree and be disagreeable. There is safety for you and me in that. And it helps keep our Union together, repeatedly forcing our leaders (and the parts of the nation that they represent and whose authority they exercise) to work with one another, like it or not.

Recently, President Obama has expressed impatience with the Constitution’s checks and balances. After all, he personally, in and of himself, embodies an entire branch of government. The other branches, Congress and the courts, have many different people with a messy variety of ideas. President Obama complains that Congress cannot decide what it wants to do as quickly as he can. In his view, why wait?

By design, Congress of course has something of a multiple personality. It is a gathering of elected representatives, reflecting the diversity of views among the people of the nation. Appropriately, it takes time to build a consensus that accommodates those views, as it should. But President Obama cannot wait. He sees the need to accommodate no ideas other than his own. He has decided that on this issue or that—today it is immigration laws—there is a limit, defined by himself, as to how much time Congress can take to consider things. When time is up, he, the executive branch, will take the matter into his own hands, and pretend to the authority to do it.

His tool of choice today is to abjure his duty to execute the laws fully and instead to execute them partially, just to the extent and manner that suit his own desires, as he engages in another round of redistributive change. That he is endeavoring to violate rather than execute our national, founding law, and his constitutional oath of office, apparently does not trouble him. It is the Constitution itself that troubles him.

But from where does he think he gets his authority to do anything. When he breaks the Constitution, does he not break his very authority to act in the office that the Constitution created?