Mt. Vernon Register-News

Opinion

September 30, 2013

How Congress got the power to shut down government

WASHINGTON, D.C. —

Once again, a budget fight in Congress -- this time, over President Barack Obama's Affordable Care Act -- threatens to escalate to a government shutdown.

Have politicians always been willing to bring the entire government and much of the nation's economy to its knees simply to get their way? Was this standard operating procedure before modern-day Republicans came on the scene?

The answer is no. But that's not because today's Republicans are behaving worse than legislators of the past. (Senator Ted Cruz of Texas has so far resisted assaulting supporters of Obamacare with fire tongs or a cane, as politicians once did over other divisive issues.) Instead, the blame belongs with the drastic changes in the laws governing the appropriations process in recent years, opening up possibilities for political warfare that didn't exist a century ago.

The Constitution contains a clause that states that "No Money shall be drawn from the Treasury, but in Consequence of Appropriations made by Law." As soon as Congress began taxing, appropriating and spending in the 1790s, it found it difficult to enforce the "appropriations clause." Federal officials would happily incur debts on behalf of the U.S. without regard to actual appropriations.

Legislators grumbled about this almost immediately. Rep. John Randolph of Virginia complained in 1806 that the appropriations process offered at best a "mere cobweb of defence against expenditures." An official who disbursed funds given him, he fumed, is "like a saucy boy who knows that his grandfather will gratify him, and over-runs the sum allowed him at pleasure."

Such complaints focused on the habit of executive-branch departments to spend money in excess of their appropriation for a given fiscal year. Congress, by contrast, rarely complained if the government spent money in the absence of a congressional appropriation. This happened quite frequently, largely because the fiscal year originally ended Dec. 31, when Congress wasn't in session. In the early republic, few politicians contemplated the possibility the government should shut down if Congress refused to pass an appropriations bill.

Text Only
Opinion
  • Close the tax loophole that sends US corporations overseas Since we last overhauled our federal tax code, in 1986, countries around the world have lowered their tax rates, leaving the United States with the highest corporate tax rate in the developed word. At the same time, the system has become full of inef

    July 29, 2014

  • College cost isn't big problem for poor students To judge by this summer’s banner policy proposals, the most important question for higher-education reform right now is giving students easier access to loans. But evidence from Canada suggests those changes won’t address the greater need: Getting mo

    July 29, 2014

  • Money not always the answer I really have to stop and think sometimes. I challenge my thought processes when I write these columns. I am having a hard time with this one. It appears to me that every time a governmental agency or any of the entities that spend other people’s mon

    July 29, 2014

  • Teachers unions' destructive behavior You can always count on the national teachers unions to behave badly at their annual conventions, and they certainly didn’t let us down this month. In doing so, however, they let down many of their members, along with students who are working hard to

    July 26, 2014

  • Workers of the world, curb your ambitions A group of Democrats introduced legislation this week to protect low-paid shift workers from last-minute changes in their schedules. The idea fits into an intriguing category of economic activism: Not trying to lift low-paid workers out of poverty, n

    July 26, 2014

  • State of the reunion ‘Katy! It’s been so long! How’ve you been?”My God, she’s gained so much weight I didn’t recognize her. It’s a good thing we’re all wearing nametags. I thought it was some distant cousin past due with triplets.“Bob! Long time, no see.”No hair, either.

    July 26, 2014

  • Fear indifference ‘Perhaps the Catholic church would volunteer to pony up some cash for the illegals’ care then? Hmm?”“Pope should stay out of it. Matter of civil laws, not church laws.”“Thinking that the pope should want the illegals to go to Argentina to get better

    July 25, 2014

  • A push for felon voting rights If advocates have their way, voting rights could be a new reality for the nation’s incarcerated.Full voting rights for felons is as hot a topic in Washington as voting rights in reverse pushed by voter-ID-tickled Republicans. But with new legislation

    July 25, 2014

  • Big insurers need better oversight Could Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway Inc. threaten the stability of the financial system? The U.S.’s top regulators are asking themselves this question as they consider whether Berkshire and other large insurers should come under Federal Reserve

    July 25, 2014

  • Questions for Obamacare after the ruling Tuesday, I outlined what we knew about Halbig v. Burwell, the case in which a federal appellate court ruled that subsidies for purchasing insurance under Obamacare can only be made available on marketplaces established by states. Now I propose to out

    July 24, 2014

Twitter Updates
Facebook
Stocks