National Politics | Politics

The Sequester: Constitutional authority comes with Constitutional responsibility

As we hurtle toward the sequester, finger-pointing abounds. Our representatives in Washington are working hard to avoid the public’s wrath. In the debate over who owns the big steaming heap in D.C., I’d like to focus on who has control of the cow (better yet, the bull). Try as Congress might to shift the blame to the president, it is they who have caused the country to “step in it” – and it is their job to scrape the bottom of our budgetary shoe.

Time for some tough Constitutional truths.

Truth 1: There are some tasks that Congress cannot delegate – certain obligations that can’t be sloughed off to avoid political injury.  Congress’s legislative and budgetary powers come with the obligation to exercise them – even when it hurts.

Article I, Section 7 of the Constitution dictates the legislative process. In the Framer’s scheme, the House and Senate craft the bills and the president then reacts. According to the presentment clause, he can sign the bill, veto the bill, or do nothing. In most cases the bill defaults into law after 10 days. The president can weigh in on bills passed by Congress, but he cannot write them or change them.

The U.S. Supreme Court in Clinton v New York struck down the Line Item Veto as a violation of the separation of powers requirement – as well as the presentment clause.  The bottom line is that Congress cannot hand off their budgetary duties to the executive branch.  With Constitutional authority comes Constitutional responsibility. As JFK said: “To those whom much is given, much is expected.”

Truth 2: Article I, Section 9 mandates that “No money shall be drawn from the Treasury, but in consequence of appropriations made by law.”

The Appropriations mandate reflects the inconvenient truth that the president has NO independent ability to spend money. Congress alone holds the purse strings. By law, the president must present a budget to Congress each year. But Congress routinely ignores – and often ridicules – presidential proposals.

Constitutionally, the creation of a federal spending plan is a legislative duty. The Appropriations process ultimately puts the Congressional seal of approval on resulting expenditures. Given this, the idiocy of debt ceiling warfare becomes apparent. With the appropriation vote, Congress has approved the spending and authorized the president to cut checks. Negotiating with him on the resulting need to raise the debt limit is like purchasing a new car – then shaming your financial manager for making the payments.

Truth 3: Over time, both Democratic and Republican Congresses have struggled to duck their Article I marching orders.

Over the years, members have worked hard to avoid the political repercussions of tough choices. The Balanced Budget Amendment and the Line Item Veto are perfect examples. Rather than do the heavy lifting themselves, members preferred the Balanced Budget Amendment to self-restraint.  The Line Item Veto begged the president to veto overspending that the legislature had passed – to essentially save them from themselves! Last year, Congress created a budgetary doomsday machine of automatic cuts rather than hash out a compromise for the benefit of the country. And most recently, they have demanded that the president do the program-cutting dirty work sequester would require.

It’s time for the American people to start making demands of Congress. No more blame shifting. No more buck passing, Do your job – even if your shoes get dirty.

Lynn Rivers
Lynn Rivers was a Democratic member of the U.S. House of Representative from 1995 – 2003. She represented Michigan’s 13th Congressional district (Eastern Washtenaw and Western Wayne counties). Prior to serving in Congress, she was a Michigan State Representative. She has an undergraduate degree from U-M and a law degree from Wayne State. She currently teaches Political Science at Washtenaw Community College and the University of Michigan.