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Protecting Congress’s Power of the Purse

Overview

On July 1, 2020, Protect Democracy, along with National Taxpayers Union, Project on Government Oversight, R Street Institute, FreedomWorks, and Demand Progress launched the Power of the Purse coalition.

For many decades, Congress has given up significant control over one of its most fundamental enumerated powers, the power of the purse, by delegating budget authority to the executive branch and engaging in insufficient oversight over federal spending. Across both Democratic and Republican administrations, the executive branch has aggrandized its own power to make spending decisions.

The devolution of Congress’s primacy over the power of the purse has resulted in executive branch abuse, including spending taxpayer funds in ways Congress has not authorized or failing to allocate duly appropriated funds to the programs and activities that Congress has enacted. It also undermines the rule of law when spending judgments are the products of executive fiat and informal decision-making by agencies rather than of a deliberative process reflected in legislation.

We believe Congress must reclaim its own power through legislative reforms and more robust oversight authority to limit executive overreach. Congress must understand and correct, as necessary, how the executive branch implements legislatively-created programs. As executive agencies administer appropriated funds, they must demonstrate that they are managing federal funds only as Congress directs. For example, the executive branch must regularly report how it is using, or proposing to cancel or defer, budget authority.

Accordingly, we urge reforms consistent with the following framework:

  • When Congress abdicates its tax and spending responsibilities, it leaves an unchecked executive branch likelier to abuse power and squander scarce resources.
  • Congress’s weakness in wielding its power of the purse has been both structural and bipartisan, and thus solutions must, too, be structural and should be supported by people across the political spectrum.
  • Increasing congressional authority over the purse does not require taking a position on the size or scope of government.
  • Congress has a constitutional responsibility to oversee how the executive branch implements its tax and spending decisions, and this oversight power must be reinforced.
  • Congress must have improved tools to ensure that the executive branch follows the law that the legislative branch writes, while balancing the executive’s need for flexible and effective mechanisms to implement Congress’s wishes within the confines of the law.

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