I co-direct the Legislative Branch Capacity Working Group, a nonpartisan gathering of scholars and congressional staff that aims to “make Congress great again.” We meet each month on the Hill to discuss aspects of congressional capacity, and to commission and produce research on the subject.
So, obviously I was REALLY delighted to be invited to testify at this House Oversight and Government Reform subcommittee hearing yesterday, which considered Congress’ power of the purse.
It’s a big topic, and we focused on just a sliver of it — agencies’ authority to collect money from the public in the form of user fees, fines and the like, and then to spend it. The president’s FY2017 budget reports the government collected $516 billion from the public this past year.
We also discussed a potentially major piece of legislation, H.R. 5499, the Agency Accountability Act of 2016. Rep. Gary J. Palmer, R-Ala., introduced this concise piece of legislation, which would require agencies to turn over fees, fines, penalties and settlement proceeds to the U.S. Treasury, allowing Congress to choose whether to reappropriate them (or not).
A big problem with Congress over the past century is that it frequently has delegated its fundamental powers to the executive branch. That has weakened our separation-of-powers system. Allowing agencies to collect fees and spend them, as I noted in my testimony, is not a new thing. The very first Congress authorized customs officials to pay themselves from the duties they collected from ships using American ports. But the more often Congress allows agencies to do this, the more difficult it becomes to oversee and control the executive branch.
One of the huge takeaways from this hearing is that Congress does not really know which agencies are charging fees, how those fees are set (rarely are the fee levels written into law), and how much freedom agencies have to spend the fees.
An issue I brought up is that the very complexity of the current budget makes parsing the data difficult. Money flowing from the public is put under various categories and subcategories: receipts versus offsetting receipts and offsetting collections, fees, duties, taxes, penalties and fines, settlements, etc. The complexity is so great that very few folks (appropriators and other budget wonks) can comprehend what’s what, which is a problem for self-governance. (To appreciate how baffling federal budgeting is, have a quick look at pp. 5–6 here. Careful — your head may throb.)
Again, agencies’ authority to collect and spend fees is just one aspect of the power of the purse. Nonetheless, it is central to our constitutional system, and it is heartening to see our legislature taking up the issue. Hopefully, the 115th Congress will study the subject further and come up with reforms.