Separation of powers is one of the United States government’s most basic principles. But for several decades, presidents from both parties have gradually concentrated more and more power in the executive branch, at the expense of Congress and the judiciary. A new bill from Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-Wash.), the Unauthorized Spending Accountability (USA) Act of 2016, seeks to rebalance a tilted scale.
Only Congress has the power of the purse, yet a long list of unauthorized executive branch programs continue to operate—256 in all, at a cost of more than $310 billion. The USA Act would automatically cut a program’s budget to 90 percent of its previously authorized level in its first unauthorized year, and to 85 percent in the second year. Programs would sunset altogether after a third unauthorized year.
As the executive branch becomes more overbearing with each successive administration, Congress becomes more and more of a wallflower. Congress has not seen fit to authorize entire cabinet-level departments, such as the State Department, since 2003. The Justice Department was last authorized by Congress in 2009. Other departments, such as the Bureau of Land Management, have now operated for twenty years without congressional authorization. The USA Act would require Congress to own up to its budgeting responsibilities, while simultaneously making the executive branch more accountable.
There is more. The USA Act’s automatic budget cuts and sunsets apply only to programs classified as discretionary spending. But two thirds of federal spending is classified as mandatory, including major programs such as Social Security and Medicare. While Congress has the power to change these programs at any time, they do not require congressional reauthorization, and can continue indefinitely on autopilot.
The USA Act would create a Spending Accountability Commission to examine mandatory spending programs and make them more accountable to Congress, which apparently prefers to avoid making them more efficient or fairer—a clear abdication of responsibility, given the coming entitlement crunch. The Commission would also assist Congress in creating a schedule for sun-setting unauthorized discretionary programs.
Restoring a proper separation of powers is a tall order. The USA Act is no panacea for all of government’s ills, but it would mark an important step in a crucial area of reform.