Separation of powers is a core principle of American government. But things haven’t gone quite as planned. Congress, the first branch, has increasingly taken a back seat to the second branch, headed by the president. This is not a partisan problem, but a systemic one.
The Framers designed a system of checks and balances in the belief that the different branches of government would compete against each other. They were mistaken. It turned out that it is parties, not branches, that compete against each other. This institution-level problem requires an institution-level fix.
To that end, Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-WA) recently reintroduced the Unauthorized Spending Accountability (USA) Act, which seeks to rebalance a tilted scale by reasserting Congress’ power of the purse. It would reengage Congress in policy making, regardless of who runs which branch at any given time.
Only Congress has the power of the purse, yet a long list of unauthorized executive branch programs continue to operate—971 in all as of 2019, at a cost of more than $306 billion. That is roughly a quarter of discretionary federal spending.
The USA Act would automatically cut an unauthorized program’s budget to 90 percent of its previously authorized level in its first unauthorized year, and to 85 percent in the second unauthorized year. Programs would sunset altogether after a third unauthorized year.
The Trump administration displayed less respect for the limits on its power than any previous administration, including the “pen-and-phone” Obama administration. President Biden is unlikely to suddenly show a restraint that no one in his office has in decades. That bodes poorly for the COVID-19 recovery effort, which cannot be planned from Washington, let alone from one individual’s office. Congress needs to reassert itself as a check and a balance on the executive.
The USA Act would require Congress to own up to its budgeting responsibilities, while simultaneously making the executive branch more accountable. The reform is much needed.
As it stands now, there are programs currently operating that Congress has not authorized since the 95th Congress, which was in session from 1977 to 1979. In fact, when Rep. McMorris Rodgers introduced the first version of the USA Act in 2016, entire cabinet-level departments, such as the State Department, had not been congressionally authorized since 2003. The Justice Department was last authorized by Congress in 2009. Other agencies, such as the Bureau of Land Management, have operated for roughly 25 years without congressional authorization.
There is more. The USA Act’s automatic budget cuts and sunsets apply only to programs classified as discretionary spending. Roughly three quarters 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.
To address mandatory spending, the USA Act would create a Spending Accountability Commission to examine mandatory spending programs and make them more accountable to Congress. It is especially crucial to make those programs more efficient and fairer, given the coming entitlement crunch. The Commission would also assist Congress in creating a schedule for sunsetting unauthorized programs.
Restoring a proper separation of powers is a tall order. The USA Act is no panacea, but it would mark an important step in crucial area of reform. With a difficult recovery from both COVID-19 and a recession ahead, the time to act is now.