The “Power of the Purse” Myth


As Republicans in Congress scramble today to piece together a bill funding the Department of Homeland Security, it’s worth reviewing how we got here.

Shortly after the 2014 mid-term elections, President Obama issued executive orders providing residency and work permits to millions of illegal immigrants.  Republicans and even a few Democrats objected to the actions as an unconstitutional application of executive authority.  Republicans wanted to fight back without stealing the thunder of their recent electoral triumph.  So they passed an omnibus “continuing resolution,” funding at current levels the entire federal bureaucracy — except for the DHS, which they funded through today’s date only.  The thinking was that, in the new year, with majorities in both houses of Congress, Republicans would be able to pressure the president into backing down from his “executive amnesty.”

We give the power brokers in Washington too much credit for their political calculations.  Why would anyone believe that President Obama, who had just led his party to a crushing defeat, could be cowered into backing down on a signature issue?  If anything, the President now has even less of an incentive to compromise.  He has no more elections of his own.  His party has taken as many lumps as it can.  Even fewer moderates survive in the Democratic caucus.  Politically speaking, there is nothing restricting the president from putting a foot on the accelerator of his agenda.

The Constitution does vest in the Congress power to appropriate funds from the treasury.  Technically, Congress can “defund” the administrative resources which the administration needs to “execute” objectionable executive orders.  Of course, “defund” in this context means to pass an appropriations bill with restrictions.  Even if such a measure were to garner enough bipartisan support to overcome a Senate filibuster, the president would have no compulsion to sign it.   Congress would not have enough votes to override a veto.  In short, we would find ourselves where we stand today — a looming “shutdown” of the department at issue.

Even if both sides are mechanically responsible for the impasse, public opinion lays the blame squarely on the party throwing up the initial roadblock — in this case, the GOP.  One can argue for principle above politics, but purity only gets you so far.  It’s easy for Rep. Steve King (R-IA) or Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) to hold the line because neither faces any credible political fallout from his actions.  Bucking compromise only burnishes their credentials with their constituencies.  For the conservative movement as a whole, however, it’s a losing proposition.  As Homeland Security staff are furloughed or forced to work without pay, it’s obvious where the pressure will begin to mount.  The party which prides itself on law and order issues will have no choice but to cave.  Notwithstanding claims to the contrary, the GOP was lucky to avoid punishment for the 2013 government shutdown.  If not for the disastrous roll-out of and other blunders by the administration, mid-term election results would have looked very different.

This is not to say that conservatives have no cards to play in the battle over spending levels and priorities.  Options are simply more limited when we appropriate with omnibus bills that face little scrutiny or discussion.  There is a reason for “regular order” whereby the House Appropriations Committee and the Senate Committee on Appropriations divide their work into twelve subcommittees, each tasked with developing an appropriations bill for its own section of the government.  These subcommittees can hold hearings and publish proposals and dig into the details which other legislators lack the time or interest to investigate.  It’s in the deep and dirty work of these subcommittees where Republicans can parlay the privileges of their majority.  It’s there that fiscal conservatives can shine a light on waste or muscle through resolutions which advance priorities without the distraction of emotionally charged national debates largely unrelated to the subcommittee’s core business.

It’s not capitulating or shirking responsibility to forsake tactics which turn the tables on contentious issues.  Critics have good cause to resent the president’s overreach.  To be effective in opposition, however, they need to read the political tea leaves.  No good will come from a DHS shutdown.  Better to fight for restraint by the courts and, ultimately, for control of the White House.

1 Comment

Filed under Domestic Policy, Electoral Politics, Immigration

One response to “The “Power of the Purse” Myth

  1. Phillip Maltin

    Great summary and fascinating insight.


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