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 can reclaim its power through legislative reforms — pursued both through annual appropriations legislation and standalone statute — 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.
Reforms to Strengthen Congress’s Power of the Purse
An array of legislative reforms would help Congress reassert its power.
The Power of the Purse Coalition urges 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.
The Coalition has advocated for reforms in the following policy areas:
Reprogramming: The Executive Branch has too much discretion in the reprogramming of congressionally appropriated taxpayer funds. Congress should consider implementing more transparency requirements and restrictions on this budget authority.
Comprehensive inventory of federal programs: If Congress is going to make good decisions in the exercise of its power of the purse, a prerequisite should be that it and the public at large know the full scope of programs and activities that are being funded by taxpayers. Congress should use appropriations bills to ensure that such an inventory is finally created and made available to the public.
Apportionment transparency: The apportionment process is legally binding on federal agencies and yet it is entirely internal to the Executive Branch. Congress must require more transparency around apportionment decisions in order to know what the Executive Branch is doing with dollars after they have been appropriated by Congress.
Oversight of mandatory spending: As an ever-increasing percentage of federal spending has transitioned to the mandatory spending category, Congress has abdicated much of its responsibility for making hard decisions on the appropriation of taxpayer dollars.Congress should consider mechanisms that would rebalance the elements of the federal budget that operate on auto-pilot (mandatory) and those which Congress must proactively account for. In this way, Congress will be able to more fully exercise its power of the purse and can be held responsible by the public for its decisions.
The Coalition has advocated for the inclusion of reforms in annual appropriations and defense authorization legislation and standalone statute. It has made progress in several key areas:
Apportionment transparency: In the FY2022 omnibus, Congress required the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) to disclose apportionments to Congress and the public on a public website. In July 2022, OMB met that requirement and unveiled https://apportionment-public.max.gov/. Congress also required federal agencies if a delay or condition on funding would prevent the agency from spending that funding before it expires.
Comprehensive inventory of federal programs: In Jan. 2021, the Taxpayer Right-to-Know Act became law as part of the FY2021 National Defense Authorization Act. The Taxpayer Right-to-Know Act requires OMB to create—and regularly update—a public inventory of federal programs. However, OMB has yet to implement this law.
The Coalition also has supported the Congressional Power of the Purse Act (H.R.6628, 116th Congress), a comprehensive package of reforms that would help Congress reclaim its constitutional authority over federal spending by increasing transparency of final spending decisions by the executive branch, improve reporting under the Antideficiency Act and Impoundment Control Act, strengthen the Government Accountability Office’s ability to investigate and prevent violations of budget or appropriations laws, and restore checks and balances against executive authority to respond to emergencies. The Congressional Power of the Purse Act passed the House in December 2021 as Title V of the Protecting Our Democracy Act (H.R. 5314, 117th Congress).