Now for Sale: Congress’s Constitutional Authority

In small ways and big, Congress's FAA climbdown is Washington at its worst

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Tom Nagy / Gallery Stock

The first reaction to Congress’s FAA climbdown was that Democrats in general and the White House in particular caved. And there’s plenty of truth to that. From the start, the White House and Senate Democratic leaders have said they would not undo parts of the sequester without undoing all of it. “The President also made clear that he will not accept any measure that attempts to turn off part of the sequester,” said White House spokesman Jay Carney in November 2011.

But last night, the Senate rushed through a bill by unanimous consent — without a single objection — that would authorize the FAA to spend up to $253 million of the funds Congress gave it in 2013 on keeping air-traffic controllers on the job and flights running on time. The House followed suit this morning, passing the bill with bipartisan support on a greater than 300-vote margin and in violation of the Republican majority’s policy of making all legislation available for review 72 hours before the vote. Enter the White House. “It will be good news for America’s traveling public if Congress spares them these unnecessary delays,” Carney said on Friday morning, but “we hope Congress will find the same sense of urgency and bipartisan cooperation to help the families who have had children kicked out of Head Start, the seniors who have lost access to Meals on Wheels, the hard-working employees who have been laid off due defense cuts, and the 750,000 Americans who have lost a job or won’t find one because of the sequester by acting on a balanced deficit-reduction plan like the one the President has proposed.”

In other words, instead of vetoing the bill, Obama is going to “hope” that Congress will do all the things Obama previously said it had to do. So, yes, the White House caved.

But in the larger picture, the sequester climbdown is just the latest in a continuing abdication of congressional power to the Executive Branch, a concession that Congress is so broken that it’s just going to let the President run things. Article One of the U.S. Constitution — the first and most important thing the framers wanted to get down on paper in founding the country — says “no money shall be drawn from the treasury, but in consequence of appropriations made by law.”

When Republicans first created the sequester in the 1980s, the idea was to make it brutal and absolute: every item of congressional appropriation — each government “program, project and activity” in the language of the bill — was to be cut, except for 47 domestic poverty programs and entitlements like Medicaid and Social Security.

And just to make sure everyone was clear on that point when Paul Ryan revivified the sequester at the White House’s suggestion in the summer of 2011, the House appropriators in charge of the FAA explicitly said the agency had to cut anything for which a dollar amount had been appropriated by Congress.

What last night’s bill really does is turn over part of the Article One power of the purse to the Executive Branch. If the FAA wants, it can now take $253 million Congress told them to spend in one way, and spend it in another, as long as the overall effect is to diminish flight delays. The way Congress is going to handle the mess it created with the sequester, apparently, is by handing over spending authority to the President, one appropriation at a time.

So now that the White House has caved on rolling back the sequester piecemeal, the question becomes, How much of its Article One authority is Congress going to give away? Ideally, it’ll reserve the auto-emasculation for cases where angry constituents call in and demand action. But it’s a safe bet that lobbyists for individual interests are going to try to get in on the action as the sequester unravels over the summer.

This latest move just continues the trend of Congress whittling down its own authority. It already gave away some of its spending authority last month by unwinding some Pentagon and Department of Agriculture sequester orders. And it long ago gave up its Article One power to declare war — it hasn’t done that since World War II. If liberal Senate Democrats have their way, the filibuster will go away too. Robert Byrd is spinning in his grave.

— With reporting by Alex Altman and Zeke Miller / Washington