Government & Politics

Say, Does Anyone on Capitol Hill Remember the Spending Clause?

The Constitution is our true avenue to cutting spending.

Dan Gilmore · Oct. 1, 2015

Wednesday night, Washington passed yet another Continuing Resolution, authorizing the government to be funded until Dec. 11, leaving the overall budget unchanged.

It’s hardly business as usual, though. House Speaker John Boehner has been toppled. The election for a new speaker is scheduled for Oct. 8. It’s the last budget battle before the presidential election gears up in earnest. And Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has engaged in quiet talks with Boehner and Barack Obama on a budget that will last until the presidential election is over.

Fiscal responsibility is one of the cornerstone principles of conservative policy. Yet, as we noted last week, not many conservative politicians are talking about how to steer the nation’s finances away from stormy seas and toward the peaceful constitutional cove.

The looming problem is that the lack of a budget also feeds a growing national debt. The Congressional Budget Office predicted in March that government spending will grow to $6 trillion a year by 2025. With that bill comes budget deficits and uncontrolled debt. Left unchecked, debt can hamstring national security, as the government would find itself unable to respond to an emergency. Furthermore, an unmanageable national debt could cause financial crises — not hard to envision as we watch Greece unravel.

That’s the bad news. The good news, believe it or not, is the GOP Congress. As the Wall Street Journal editorial board writes, Obama drove government spending up to 24.4% of GDP in 2009. But a Republican-controlled Congress decreased that to 20.3% by 2014.

“[T]he lesson of these numbers is that the Republican House has fulfilled its promise to restrain federal spending,” the Journal argues. “In other words it has used its power of the purse under the Constitution to shrink the burden of government — despite ferocious opposition over four years from a Democratic Senate and President.”

This is the result of the Republican wave. After decades to get to this point, the nation sees small improvement. But it will take decades more to return to constitutionally guided spending. The Republican Party needs to not simply make fiscal responsibility its goal, but to follow the Constitution.

Meanwhile, there are several constitutional problems with the way the government is run. Citizens Against Government Waste issued a press release reiterating the government spending problem — “Spend It or Lose It.” Rather than practice fiscal responsibility, many agencies just spend all their allocated money at the end of the fiscal year, lest they show they are under budget and then lose their money supply.

“Even more troubling than the binges themselves are the frivolous purchases made during this time,” writes CAGW. “A few days before the government shutdown in 2013, the State Department spent $5 million for an elaborate Vermont glassblower ‘to provide 20 different styles of custom handcrafted stem and barware to the State Department for use in American embassies around the world.’”

Just imagine what the Founders would think of how government spends today. In “The Heritage Guide to the Constitution,” John C. Eastman writes that the Founders didn’t justify spending because — like the modern U.S. government interprets it — the expense might be helpful and somehow fulfill its charge to “promote the general Welfare.” Instead, the earliest Congresses read the Spending Clause of Article 1, Section 8 much more narrowly, saying either the expense had to benefit citizens generally, or that the expense could only be justified if it furthered a government role enumerated in the Constitution.

“The First Congress refused to make a loan to a glass manufacturer after several Members expressed the view that such an appropriation would be unconstitutional, and the Fourth Congress did not believe it had the power to provide relief to the citizens of Savannah, Georgia, after a devastating fire destroyed the entire city.” [emphasis added]

It’s a radical idea, but if tax cuts are generally expected to grow the economy through reducing the burden imposed by government, imagine the effect an aggressive approach to how the people’s tax money is spent would have.

In the short term, Republicans must demonstrate they can pass responsible budgets. This means they should not jam the government every time a singular issue arises. Yes, even though the effort to defund Planned Parenthood holds the moral high ground, little is gained in losing a fight to defund only one small part of the budget. We’re playing a long game here.

Conservatives must concentrate on winning 2016. Then, we hope, a president and legislature who agree on a constitutional definition of spending can draft a budget, and we can move toward constitutional government.

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