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Q&A: How Washington Spends Your Money

July 22, 2016
Senator Chuck Grassley , Dysart Reporter

Q: Why does Congress have the power of the purse?

A: American taxpayers are well aware how much of their hard-earned money they pay to the U.S. Treasury. It takes a bite out of every paycheck and forces families to make do with less. However, what happens to their money once it gets to Washington raises plenty of eyebrows. It's hard enough to imagine that $3.25 trillion in revenue falls short of Washington's spending appetite. Last year, the government collected record-high taxes, but the federal ledger still spilled $438 billion of red ink. That's a deficit of 438,899,000,000 dollars. When budgets don't balance, Washington borrows the difference, tacks it on to the $13.9 trillion debt held by the public, and leaves it to our children and grandchildren to pay it back with interest. As a fiscal conservative, I fight big spenders every step of the way to restore fiscal discipline and rein in overspending. Setting fiscal policy is one of the biggest responsibilities assigned to Congress. The U.S. Constitution vests Congress with the power of the purse. This gives the people's branch exclusive authority over raising and spending money. Keeping the purse strings tied to elected representatives of the people helps keep lawmakers, and in turn, government in check. Americans celebrated 240 years of independence on the Fourth of July. One of the revolutionary calls for freedom, "no taxation without representation," explains why the founders assigned tax and spending authority to Congress. Keeping the power of the purse in the hands of those elected by the people is intended to keep lawmakers mindful of whose money Washington is spending.

Q: What is the difference between the authorization and appropriations process?

A: The federal budgeting process is rooted in precedent set by the First Congress and evolved into a committee system that created a distinction between authorization and appropriations. This system separates authorizing (legislative priorities and policy decisions) with appropriating (funding decisions). At its most basic level, an authorization bill sets policy or establishes a program, and sets funding levels, but does not provide funding. An appropriations act gives federal agencies the green light to spend money on programs or functions approved by Congress and signed into law by the president. Article I, Section 9 gives Congress exclusive tax and spending authority as a function of checks and balances. So, that means a federal agency may not spend more than Congress appropriates for programs and services from year to year. Traditionally, the appropriations committees in each respective chamber of Congress hammer out spending details for a dozen spending bills each year. After the president submits a formal budget request early in the year, the appropriations process typically begins with a series of hearings in which federal agencies make their case to justify their budgets for the coming year. The president proposes and Congress disposes. Lawmakers also may leverage tools in the appropriations process to rein in federal overreach by legislating restrictions and setting guidance as to how a federal agency may spend the money approved by Congress. All discretionary spending is channeled through the appropriations process. Policy changes affecting direct, or mandatory spending, such as Social Security, are set through legislative channels authorizing reforms, not through the annual appropriations process. Federal agencies and programs may require annual authorization or periodic renewal. The power of the purse is fundamental to the separation of powers. It helps restrain mission creep from seeping throughout the sprawling federal bureaucracy, for example. This constitutional authority is tested when the traditional 12 appropriations bills are rolled into one continuing resolution or omnibus package that funds the entire federal budget. As a taxpayer watchdog, I work to restore regular order and fiscal discipline. It fosters transparency and helps hold government accountable for the $3.25 trillion tax dollars flowing into the U.S. Treasury. I work to keep a tight leash on big spenders and I'm not afraid to expose maneuvers designed to manipulate the budgeting process at the expense of taxpayers and good government. In fact, there are two recent examples of public policy taking a back seat to partisanship. A broad bipartisan consensus came together to throw a lifeline to the growing heroin and opioid epidemic in America when the Senate overwhelmingly passed the Comprehensive and Addiction Recovery Act (CARA) by 94-1 earlier this year. As chairman of the Judiciary Committee, which authorized the measure, I steered the bill through the Senate. Now, the bipartisan bill is at risk of being held up at the finish line. A similar maneuver has put at risk funding to fight the Zika virus. The Senate minority has filibustered a House-Senate compromise bill that would authorize $1.1 billion in funding to fight the disease. Regrettably, these two examples come at the expense of the public health. Some lawmakers can't seem to take yes for an answer. Good policy is good politics. That's why I'll continue working for final passage to get these public health measures enacted into law.



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