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.