Congress has the power of the purse, some say it should use it

A constant tug of war exists between Congress and the Executive Branch and the White House for apportionment, but a coalition led by the Project on Government O...

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The Constitution gives the power of the purse to Congress you may have heard. The contemporary reality is that a state of constant tug of war exists between Congress and the Executive Branch and the White House. A coalition led by the Project on Government Oversight seeks to shift more weight back to Congress. But there’s a cloak of secrecy over White House spending decisions, according to POGO policy analyst Dylan Hedtler-Gaudette, who joined Federal Drive with Tom Temin more explanation.

Interview transcript:

Tom Temin: Dylan, good to have you back.

Dylan Hedtler-Gaudette: Hey Tom, thank you so much. It’s great to be back.

Tom Temin: Tell us a little bit about this coalition. Who’s in it, and what are you trying to exactly do here?

Dylan Hedtler-Gaudette: Sure. So we are called the Power of the Purse Coalition, and we are a very diverse broad swath of civil society groups from the right, left and middle who are concerned with, as you noted in your intro, making sure that we help Congress kind of claw back some of its traditional powers and authorities, particularly around its control over tax and spending decisions, or in other words, the “power of the purse.” And so we’ve got groups like FreedomWorks, we’ve got groups like obviously POGO – the Project on Government Oversight – we’ve got Protect Democracy, R Street, National Taxpayers Union and Demand Progress. So we’re all over the map in terms of where we are on the ideological spectrum. But we share the view that Congress needs to be the Article One branch, and it needs to be the primary decision maker when it comes to tax and spending decisions.

Tom Temin: Okay, and I want to return to that but first, you’ve also written the to feel that there is a growing level of secrecy on the part of the Office of Management and Budget – the White House, to put it more bluntly – in to how spending decisions are made and what spending they’re doing. Tell us what you mean.

Dylan Hedtler-Gaudette: The Constitution gives Congress the power to appropriate taxpayer dollars and spend them on various program projects and activities that they decide on. And then they give that money to the Executive Branch and the Executive Branch is charged with doing what Congress says basically, with the money. Now because it’s a lot of money and because there are a lot of things that Congress is telling the Executive Branch to do, the Executive Branch does have some of its own flexibility in terms of how it’s going to implement those directives. But at the end of the day, they have to do what Congress tells them to do when it comes to spending taxpayer dollars. Now, unfortunately, because of this process called apportionment, which is basically when the Executive Branch chooses to disperse money to various federal agencies, they’re allowed to make all those decisions under the current status quo. They make all those decisions behind a veil of secrecy. They don’t have to be public about what these apportionment schedules are, when the money is being dispersed, and for what purposes. And as you can imagine, behind that veil of secrecy, they can get up to some shenanigans and Congress cannot find out about it until it’s too late to do anything about it.

Tom Temin: Sure. And do you think it’s worsening, say under the Trump administration versus the Obama administration or the Bush administration before that?

Dylan Hedtler-Gaudette: I wouldn’t say it’s worsening? No, this is a problem that has been going on for a very long time across administrations and across Congresses. Obviously, we do have a pretty kind of egregious and illustrative example of this. As you and your listeners will recall, the House of Representatives impeached the president because he illegally withheld security assistance funds to the Ukraine. And the way they did that was by using the apportionment process. So that’s a pretty glaring example of this problem. But this problem of secrecy when it comes to spending and dispersing taxpayer funds, this goes back a long time.

Tom Temin: I guess you could say it goes back to Iran Contra, perhaps?

Dylan Hedtler-Gaudette: Sure. Yep, and even before then.

Tom Temin: That might have been before you were born. But it was quite a scandal at the time when it happened. And so what can – well, before we get back to the clawback that Congress can exercise, is there any way to yank this cloak off the Executive Branch, such that even though it has too much power, at least people know how it’s being used?

Dylan Hedtler-Gaudette: Yeah, unfortunately, it’s pretty difficult to do it right now. I mean, the Executive Branch could choose to be more transparent if it wanted to, kind of on a unilateral basis, like that’s entirely within their power as the administrative agencies who are doing these apportionments and other budget authority. They could choose to be public about it. But basically, every time Congress tries to urge them to do that, the Executive Branch always resists pretty strongly being more transparent about this kind of thing. So basically, it’s going to require Congress passing laws, and then it would also require because of how the lawmaking process works, it would require the White House to be on board with that, to some degree.

Tom Temin: We’re speaking with Dylan Hedtler-Gaudette. He’s a policy analyst at the Project on Government Oversight. I guess maybe it’s fair to say also that at least once the money is apportioned, and it goes out through agencies, there are mechanisms for understanding how they’re spending the money. But maybe that’s a little bit after the fact?

Dylan Hedtler-Gaudette: Yeah, it is a little bit after the fact and it is even a little bit difficult to keep track of the money once it goes out of the door. When Congress appropriates money, it can be difficult to figure out exactly what’s being done with it. I mean, Congress isn’t as transparent as it should be but at the very least, when it comes to what Congress is choosing to do, we have access to hearings, we can read the legislation, you know, we have a lot better opportunity to keep track of things at the front end with Congress. But once it makes its way into the labyrinth of the Executive Branch, it can be pretty difficult to understand what’s happening there. Which is part of the problem.

Tom Temin: And getting back to the question of Congress clawing back, to use your words, to get back its Article One authorities on the purse in the federal government, it can’t go to the White House with troops and say, “Give me all this paperwork. You’re done here.” So really, it’s a matter of passing laws, isn’t it? Or is there some other mechanism Congress can get back ahold of that authority?

Dylan Hedtler-Gaudette: Yeah, so it would require an act of Congress for the most part, although what Congress can do is Congress can use its power of the purse to claw back its power of the purse what I mean by that is, they can threaten to withhold funding for other things that the administration wants and say, Okay, we’re gonna withhold funding for program “X” or for policy “Y” unless you choose to be more transparent or unless you agree to this law we want to pass that requires more transparency. So it would require some constitutional hardball but that’s the only way Congress is ever going to have any opportunity to clawback its authority is if they are willing to use the tools they have. And they’re increasingly not willing to do that, which is very unfortunate. So Congress is not blameless in all this.

Tom Temin: It sounds like the White House, I guess, and previous White Houses, have used this apportionment maybe to, in effect, reprogram money. And when an agency requests a reprogramming authority, it has to go to Congress to do that. So is this a way do you think of White House’s circumventing the requirement for going to Congress to reprogram money that’s already been appropriated?

Dylan Hedtler-Gaudette: Yeah, yeah, definitely can be because what the administration can do is they can use special footnotes on apportionment, which will do things like withhold funding to an agency or specific program unless they do “X,” which is coercive, and that can at times – and I’ll refer back to the instance of the Ukraine security assistance, that can at times be in direct violation of the will of Congress of what Congress has explicitly told the Executive Branch they need to do with the money, which is, you know, unconstitutional, and illegal.

Tom Temin: All right, and the coalition that you put together on this, what is the latest activity? And what are its next steps?

Dylan Hedtler-Gaudette: There have been a couple of bills introduced in Congress that would try to reassert Congress’s power of the purse. There is actually the congressional power of the purse Act, which was introduced in the House, which would do a lot of the things that we’re advocating for, although we haven’t, as a coalition, we haven’t taken an official position on the bill. But that bill does have several good provisions in it, including provision to require apportionment transparency, but there are other efforts to do this kind of thing. And there have been have been in the past. So we view our role as trying to provide some of the space for people across the aisle and Congress to work on these issues and to have the support of a broad swath of organizations like ours. So we’re trying to be matchmakers. We’re trying to be conveners we’re trying to uplift we put out statements, we write articles on these kinds of things. So we’re trying to help drive the ball forward and keep the conversation going around this important issue.

Tom Temin: Dylan Hedtler-Gaudette is policy analyst at the Project on Government Oversight. Thanks so much for joining me.

Dylan Hedtler-Gaudette: Thank you, Tom, it was a pleasure.

Tom Temin: Find a link to this interview into his article on this topic at Hear the Federal Drive on demand. Subscribe at Apple podcasts or Podcastone.

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