A recent Wall Street Journal op-ed does the dual service of outlining the history of the federal budget-making process over the last century, while showing, in its perilous and wrongheaded scheme for reform, just why this yawn-inducing topic is so important—and how the mess Washington has made of the enterprise subverts the key principle of our Constitution’s vision of democratic government.
First, a quick historical sketch, as longtime federal bureaucrat and House Budget Committee staffer Dennis Teti laid it out in his article. Ever since the 1921 Budget Act, presidents have proposed budgets and Congress has tinkered with them, though always within the presidential framework. After President Nixon asserted that he had the power to impound funds that Congress had voted to spend, however, profligate Democratic lawmakers reacted with the 1974 Budget and Impoundment Control Act, seizing control of federal budgeting from the Watergate-weakened president, though in practice leaving most decisions to already-unaccountable federal bureaucracies. The result has been years of runaway federal spending, despite such efforts to rein it in as the Gramm-Rudman Act or the recent sequester. None has had any lasting effect. For five years, until the 2013 Bipartisan Budget Act, Congress failed to pass any budget at all, relying on continuing resolutions—with a built-in escalator, of course. Whether the new law will work any improvement remains to be seen, but recent history inspires no optimism in Teti.
His proposed fix: allow both Congress and the president to prepare their own budgets. If Congress fails to agree on its version by a set deadline, the president’s version automatically takes effect. To prevent that result, Teti thinks, Congress would work seriously to reach agreement. But of course the recent budget impasses have not been the result of Washington “dysfunction,” but rather of House Republicans properly using their power to check and balance a president whose programs they abhor, as do their constituents. Better that nothing get done, they rightly thought, than that some monstrosity of Obamacare magnitude be enacted. If Teti’s plan had been in effect during those continuing-resolution years, today’s deficit would be beyond stratospheric, boldly hurtling through deep space, where no deficit has gone before.
In my view, the Founders’ Constitution had it right: all money bills were to originate in the House of Representatives, to fund laws made under the limited and enumerated powers that Congress possessed. The president’s job, aside from being commander in chief, the nation’s principal treaty negotiator (subject to Senate consent), and the appointer of judges and cabinet officers (ditto), is faithfully to execute the laws that Congress passes and funds. The Constitution does not make him a lawgiver, for America was to be a self-governing republic, in which the people’s elected representatives made the laws and levied the taxes.
During the Progressive Era early in the last century, all that changed. Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson disdained the Constitution as a relic of an age of wigs and knee breeches, inadequate to the modernity, efficiency, and scientific understanding of all things—including government—that the twentieth century had achieved. In an era of giant, superhuman corporations, the Progressives grandiosely believed, self-government itself was as outmoded as the Constitution that laid out its terms. Only a supremely powerful government of elastic and unlimited powers, adaptable to the exigencies of an ever-changing, ever-more complex world, could protect the poor, shivering inch of nature that is the individual citizen from the trusts and their bosses—the malefactors of great wealth, as TR contemptuously styled them. To do its intricate job, government would need scores of executive agencies, staffed by nonpartisan, public- spirited experts, who would apply the latest scientific knowledge to making rules to govern commerce, transportation, communications, and so on, right up to the Internet—all in the citizens’ interest, which the experts by definition knew better than they did, so there was no need for elected representatives to make the requisite rules. No wonder that the Woodrow Wilson who believed this also believed in the feasibility of world government.
Out of the Progressive hubris came the 1921 Budget Act, framed (as Teti neglects to tell us) by the Wilson administration though signed by Wilson’s successor, Warren G. Harding. By then, the federal government had become a mirror image of the great corporations, with the president now something akin to a big-company CEO, who establishes policy, delegates responsibility for carrying it out to a host of department heads, and of course sets the budget for carrying out his program, much like a monarch. And what would be the role of the people’s elected representatives in this post-self-government era? They ultimately became—as TR and Wilson would have been dismayed to discover—the pimps of crony capitalism, which was Progressivism’s unintended creation.
To adopt Teti’s suggestion would only cast this squalid state of affairs in concrete, abandoning the dream of self-government, absolving congressmen of responsibility to their constituents, and augmenting presidential power. Especially since the New Deal turned so much of government over to rule-making executive-branch agencies—exercising legislative, executive, and judicial functions with no checks and balances, and no accountability to the citizens—congressmen have enjoyed their vacation from responsibility. We don’t make the rules, they can say: the SEC makes them; the ICC makes them; judges make them. All we can do is help you, special interests, navigate among them—for a douceur in the form of a campaign contribution, of course.
Teti thinks that his scheme will fire up congressmen with resolve, in the old Federalist Papers style of ambition countering ambition, thus checking unconstitutional executive-branch power grabs. It won’t, because a standard-issue legislator’s natural tendency (as the Founding Fathers’ dour view of human nature predicted) is to neglect the public interest and pursue no one’s interest but his own. So anything that can force upon congressmen responsibility and accountability to their constituents is a step in the right direction. Leaving them wholly responsible for originating money bills, as the Constitution requires—and for crafting a budget that sets priorities among those money bills—is a sine qua non for the restoration of self-government.
And that should be the paramount goal of any conservative politics. Six years of a disdainfully imperial presidency; of the congressional malpractice that passes sweepingly transformative, economically revolutionary laws without even reading them; of executive-agency malfeasance that turns taxation into an instrument of oppression worthy of Louis XIV and executive-agency megalomania that shuts down the entire coal industry without a thought for the Appalachian miners whose way of life will vanish as a result—all this ought to be indisputable proof that the Progressive vision failed, because its understanding of human nature was naïve and its valuation of efficiency and expertise over ordered liberty and unalienable rights was, however unintentionally, tyrannical.
I wish I could offer a ten-point program for reining in some executive agencies and abolishing others, for making congressmen responsible for making laws and responsible to their constituents for the results, for making presidents, as George Washington was modest enough to say of himself, the servant and indeed the slave of the people. I can’t. All I can do is to remind conservatives that what we are charged with conserving is liberty. Anyone who aspires to public office needs to tell us how he plans to carry out that sacred charge.