Opinion

Congress Is Failing In Its Job To Authorize All Expenditures Beforehand

Neil Siefring Vice President, Hilltop Advocacy

Congress has begun the annual appropriations process. This exercise determines how much taxpayer or borrowed money is spent on federal departments, agencies, programs, and projects. The United States is over $18 trillion in debt and the role of the federal government is becoming greater. Congress should work to be good stewards of the money it taxes and borrows to spend. It isn’t.

As a general practice, spending in appropriations bills (also known as spending bills) must be authorized — that is approved — by Congress before they get funding. That formula makes sense. The authorization committees that oversee federal departments should weigh in first. Those committees are meant to be watching how the federal government spends money, misspends money, does its job and fails in its duties. Absent this information, appropriators aren’t getting the full picture of how best to allocate funds.

The process of authorizing programs funded by the federal government before money is so important that the rules of the House require committee reports on spending bills to list the spending in the bills that hasn’t been authorized (Clause 3(f)(1)(B) of rule XIII contains the requirement). Even with this required full disclosure, the House has no shame. It just can’t control itself and, once again this year, proposes spending money on many programs that haven’t been authorized. The House is funding spending with minimal to no oversight in many circumstances. This is despite the fact that our government is so broke that “14 cents of every dollar that Washington spent in 2014 was borrowed.”

When Congress doesn’t authorize spending, it creates an atmosphere where fiscal waste and illegality can occur since Congress is failing to keep watch over how the federal government is spending money. Last week the House passed the Commerce, Justice, Science (CJS) bill by a vote of 242-183. A federal government designed by the Founders to be limited in scope should not be spending money and exerting authority in commerce (apart from patents), policing functions reserved to the states, and science. But I digress.

There was a significant amount of unauthorized spending in the CJS bill according to the committee report. The Heritage Foundation reviewed the unauthorized programs and accounts funded in the bill, and identified 91 of them. Included in the list is Legal Services Corporation, last authorized in 1980, the International Trade Administration, last authorized in 1996, and, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, alarmingly last authorized in 2009.

Last night the House passed a behemoth of a bill, the Transportation, Housing, and Urban Development bill by a vote of 216-210. The federal government shouldn’t be funding activities like transportation and housing that the Tenth Amendment reserves to the states. But I digress again. The bill contained 28 unauthorized programs and accounts such as the Community Development Fund, last authorized in 1994, the Rental Assistance, Section 8 voucher program, last authorized in 1994, and the Surface Transportation Board, last authorized in 1998.

At least Congress seems to know it has a problem. It requires the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office (CBO) to report to them how much of their spending is unauthorized. It turns out that unauthorized appropriations spending adds up.  CBO reported that Congress “appropriated about $294 billion for fiscal year 2015 for programs and activities whose authorizations of appropriations have expired.” That is a quarter of a trillion dollars of sparsely supervised spending enabled by the House and the Senate.

Voters deserve better from their Congress. The men and women voters send to Capitol Hill should not be funding unapproved spending year after year, abdicating their oversight role, and hoping that the money doled out to the federal leviathan is being used wisely.

The federal government has grown too large. Its scale and scope has far exceeded the boundaries of the Constitution. No wonder it is difficult for Congress to properly authorize every activity it funds. The massive size of the federal government is the problem. Billions in reckless, unauthorized spending is the symptom.

Neil Siefring is president of Hilltop Advocacy, LLC, and a former Republican House staffer.  Follow him on Twitter @NeilSiefring