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

53 comments
Leftcoastrocky
Leftcoastrocky

The congressmen and their staffs did not want to be inconvenienced, hence the quick passage of the bill.  Too bad for the low income elderly dependent on Meals on Wheels and the low income children who need Head Start  

destor23
destor23

The filibuster is not a Congressional power, it's a procedural quirk.

BruceS78
BruceS78

This is not correct.  Congress can give the Executive Branch either a lot of discretion or no discretion to move funding around within an agency's funding.  A lot of the way an agency budgets is simply a result of 50 or 100 years of working with Congress to agree on a set of rules within which that agency operates after its budget is passed.  Congress explicitly limited FAA to moving up to 2 percent of any line item to another in their appropriations bill.  All Congress did was give them the temporary flexibility to move more funding around.  They hardly gave up much power.  They can take it back any time they want.


paulejb
paulejb

Seriously, Massimo? You are just now discovering that Congress can be bought? Were you out of the country while Democrat Senators were being bought retail for a vote for ObamaCare? Does the "Louisiana Purchase" and "The Nebraska Corn Husker Shuffle" not ring a bell with you?

notsacredh
notsacredh

Obama caved in. I will never vote for him for president again. I can't get too worked up over it though because they caved in last month and gave my department a waiver. It benefitted me personally. I hope the caving in turns into a cascade effect.

Paul,nnto
Paul,nnto

Just sent a (respectful) e-mail to Senator Franken. I expected nothing less from Senator Mommy but Al disappointed.

I do note that Keith Ellison voted no. 

grape_crush
grape_crush

Gloating:

"As a CQ / Roll Call reporter tweeted last night, 'Make no mistake, this FAA fix is a complete, utter cave by Senate Democrats and, if signed, by the White House.'”

grape_crush
grape_crush

"But the current state of American politics doesn’t look up to the job either just now. Gamesmanship over the federal budget increases our vulnerability—to TB and to the whole spectrum of resistant disease organisms. In particular, the budget sequester fixed in place by the House G.O.P. caucus increases the risks we face daily. Definitive decisions about the implementation of the sequester are still taking shape, but the Centers for Disease Control alone is losing four hundred and seventy million dollars, and estimates of the damage include the loss of TB services in eleven states. More than four hundred thousand H.I.V. tests won’t get done this year. As many as twelve of the twenty border-quarantine stations the C.D.C. may close, and its Global Disease Detection centers—the front line of U.S. defenses against emerging diseases—are also under threat. In the long term, the sequester threatens to cut out a generation of basic biomedical research. All the while, M. tuberculosis continues to evolve."

hummingbird
hummingbird

This is some good news! It's time for this country to start looking like a First World Country again!

grape_crush
grape_crush

> "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." 

Awesome. Just awesome(ly idiotic). Do any of these genius politicians understand how and on what the FAA spends its money? Taking money from one part of the FAA's budget to bring controllers off furlough will just cause slowdowns to occur from reducing funding in other areas

"Shuster points to contracts, consultants and travel as other expenditures that could be cut instead. But that's not as simple as it may sound.

Travel already has been reduced, mainly to trips to keep the air traffic system functioning, like sending a technician to a facility to resolve an equipment problem, Huerta said. Overtime is being preserved for emergencies.

The largest of the agency's operations contracts is to provide and maintain a communications system for air traffic operations. The second-largest contract is for provision of weather, information on flight restrictions and other services to pilots. And the third-largest pays companies to provide controllers for towers at small airports. The FAA's proposal to save money by shutting down 149 of the towers already has drawn complaints from lawmakers in both parties who don't want airports in their states and districts to lose towers."

So if there's a problem with the communication system or pilots don't have weather information or smaller, 'feeder' airports reduce operations or functions - or any number of other operational details that will be negatively impacted - that's all going to result in a slowdown as well. Politics aside, this isn't a solution; it's a sick joke.

And guess who gets to bear the brunt of the blame because the core problem - denial of funding due to fatally flawed austerity economic policy - isn't even being talked about here. This is reprehensible cowardice; a disgusting abdication of duty on the part of Congress and the White House.

georgiamd
georgiamd

From the law makers who gave us Obamacare, they appear dubious about participating themselves. Gee, I wonder why? Leading Democrats see a "Train wreck coming". Are the Rats abandoning ship?

Congress, Fearing 'Brain Drain,' Seeks to Opt Out of ...... that if Congress was going to impose Obamacare upon ... conversations attempting to craft an Obamacare waiver for Members of Congress and/or ...www.forbes.com/sites/aroy/2013/04/25/congress-fearing... - Cached

Paul,nnto
Paul,nnto

I am, not surprisingly, with Mr Obvious. This is such a transparent give away to an industry that can afford to lobby while other victims of the sequestration are ignored.

People know exactly what is going on.

shepherdwong
shepherdwong

"This latest move just continues the trend of Congress whittling down its own authority."

You left out a pretty big example there, but that would have required you to make a partisan statement: the Republican decision to turn over House legislation to right-wing radicals and make the filibuster the operating feature of the Senate (the two things which caused the sequester in the first place) has whittled down it's authority to govern more than anything since giving up it's Constitutional war powers. Much like the Beltway Press' decision to no longer speak truth to (partisan) power has continued the trend of "whittling down its own authority."

 

MrObvious
MrObvious

There comes a point where regular folks have had enough. When our political system continue to show expedience in providing resources to the few over the many but can't find the time a day to legislate for the majority.

And why do Dems continue to reward GOP obstructionism?

They don't want to legislate; being the good guy won't change anything. If anything you'll turn regular folks off by legislating against their will and you continue to see a small but entrenched GOP clinging to the house and senate. Obama is not doing himself a service by pretending to help the few not feeling the pain when so many of us does on a day by day basis.

olavious
olavious

We can ask the president to veto this even so it is unlikely. Please sign our petition to veto the Reducing Flight Delays Act of 2013 as long as all other sequestration cuts remain in place.

http://wh.gov/tQnK

S_Deemer
S_Deemer

Too bad it's too late to submit an amendment that only flights on which members of Congress are flying will be subject to flight delays...

fitty_three
fitty_three

This sucks.  Why can't us Dems make a stand on stuff like this?

buffalo.barnes102
buffalo.barnes102

Absolutely pathetic. Flight delays? This is Congress' big worry? This country has gone off the tracks completely. I voted for Obama and have watched him do nothing but grovel; make "inspiring" speeches about this or that and then crawl back to the White House and prepare for his next thrashing. He has officially become a "lame duck" President. 

curt3rd
curt3rd

Whats wrong, not getting your thousands in overtime.  More bureaucratic waste of taxpayer money.

stanleyjenkins
stanleyjenkins

@sacredh You shouldn't be voting for anyone since you clearly don't understand how the electoral system works. You can't vote for him again... he's on his second term.

Paul,nnto
Paul,nnto

Heh, If this is the sum and total.... 

"Thank you for submitting your message to my U.S. Senate office.  Each week, several thousand Minnesotans send me their thoughts and suggestions on legislation and important issues facing our nation. This impressive volume is a testament to the Minnesotan traditions of grassroots activism and civic participation that distinguish our state. I closely track the concerns that are expressed in your letters and emails, and will answer them as soon as possible.

Sincerely,



Al Franken"

shepherdwong
shepherdwong

@georgiamd Anonymous sources within Congress fearing "brain drain." The comedy writes itself.

shepherdwong
shepherdwong

@Paul,nnto The trouble with that theory is the transparent giveaways to industry are nothing new. "Now For Sale...," my @ss. Congress has been for sale to industry since there's been a congress.

This is pure political pandering to middle-class flyers by both parties, the Congress and the White House. The point is, it's the natural the result of the full implementation of right-wing "small-government" dogma taken to it's logical insanity.

MrObvious
MrObvious

@Paul,nnto 

It's not like polls don't show it. We're hitting the upper 50-60s on most of these issues. Increasingly people see and understand who does what, owns whom and they're getting frustrated.

These idjusts have to get it in to their heads; in every single time you have such a disparity radical things happen.

tommyudo
tommyudo

@shepherdwong


"the Beltway Press' decision to no longer speak truth to (partisan) power ......"

When did the Beltway press ever speak truth to power? They are the Beltway press for a reason. Once the Kochs gobble up the Tribune Company it will only be worse. Those who control the flow of information control the agenda.


tommyudo
tommyudo

@MrObvious

"And why do Dems continue to reward GOP obstructionism?"

Ummm, maybe because it is just a family squabble. In terms of just the Senate, you have some singular exceptions like Liz Warren, Bernie Sanders, and, on his good days, Sherrod Brown. Otherwise most of the Dems are corporate shills that preach the populist line when election time rolls around. As long as there isn't radical election law reform in  the way of donations (say a $250 max limit), and put strict limits on advertising (no, corporations are not people) nothing will EVER change. 


tommyudo
tommyudo

@buffalo.barnes102 


So how do the 1% go around the world and get their business deals done if their flights aren't on time? The elite always get their way when they find themselves "inconvenienced." Why should any of this surprise anyone?

fitty_three
fitty_three

@buffalo.barnes102  

I've been very upset at him from time to time, and I think that in this, he's guaranteeing himself defeat on the very issues we elected him for.

fitty_three
fitty_three

@stanleyjenkins

You got a point.

To bad though, he's been loosed on the world and it's all that pesky Consitution's fault.

Annie-CO
Annie-CO

@Paul,nnto that's a standard computer generated reply - Several Senators use the same or similar message, then follow up with one that is pointed at the subject you wrote about.

Paul,nnto
Paul,nnto

@shepherdwong @Paul,nnto  It may be nothing new, Shep, but my hunch is that the reaction will be.

Frankly if they continue to roll back the sequestration piecemeal to the chosen ones it may be a good thing. One by one is clearer than tucking gifts into larger bills. 

Again, I may be wrong. 

shepherdwong
shepherdwong

@tommyudo "When did the Beltway press ever speak truth to power?"

I'm old. In a different land, long, long ago, they helped end an administration and an unjust and devastating war, stopped the first right-wing demagogue in his tracks, helped impeach another corrupt president, and gave voice to rights of blacks and the real equality of women. But I agree, the final corporate neutering of the political press is nearly at hand.

tom.litton
tom.litton

@tommyudo @MrObvious I agree it's a long shot, unless the voting public turns against all politicians getting any type of campaign contributions.  Of the 3 (donation limits, public financing, and blind campaign contributions) however, i consider blind campaign contributions to be the easiest to get through in the near future. 

I never understood why people vote for them anyways.  You see the advertisements on TV.  You know they cost a lot of money.  You know where that money comes from.  You know what they have to do to get it.  Why vote for them?  There are nearly always alternatives.  In the primaries especially, but even in the general elections.

shepherdwong
shepherdwong

@Paul,nnto  "...my hunch is that the reaction will be."

Then the question is, in what way. Without pinning the blame where it belongs - Republican anti-government obstructionism that caused the sequester brinkmanship (rather than the regular financing of government) - the way it's being portrayed by the pathologically non-partisan political press is: "Congress (Republicans and Democrats) and Obama caved." Whether it was an industry give-away (I don't see it in this case) or a pander to middle-class fliers really doesn't matter, it's yet another pox on both R and D houses.

That doesn't change anything even if the public pique causes them to vote everyone out of office next cycle, as long as enough people are stupid or brainwashed enough to keep voting Republicans back in. Nothing changes. The government dysfunction we are experiencing is because of Republican obstructionism, period, and that only goes away in one of two ways: 1) Republicans are sent to long-term minority status and we get reasonable government policy or 2) Republicans are restored to more government control (the Senate or White House) and we get more disastrous "conservative" policy-making, possibly more radically worse than before.

shepherdwong
shepherdwong

@tommyudo  Interesting. I was thinking Goldwater so that's at least a three-off. No, I think there was real, independent journalism that was mostly unaffected by board room editorial control back in the day. That day is over.

tommyudo
tommyudo

@shepherdwong @tommyudo 


I'm old too, and Murrow and McCarthy was sort of a one off. Just by shining the light on vermin they sometimes wither and die on their own. In terms of Vietnam,. the "shark was jumped" pretty much when 
"Uncle" Cronkite came back from Vietnam and said it was unwinnable.  I'll give credit where it's due. Some old line journalists had the power to turn a tide, but the institution is still there to defend the powerful at all costs.The ethics of the MSM  in the last 30 years have diminished greatly, about as much as the fortunes of the middle and working classes have during the same period. We are in a race to the bottom, and until the main event occurs, I'm enjoying the prologue.

tommyudo
tommyudo

@tom.litton @tommyudo @MrObvious 

Our only hope for an effective group of legislators that are beholden solely to the voting public is complete public financing of elections, on the federal and state levels - especially the state levels, where corruption is even on a higher order than in DC. The only way that happens is for the pols to turn their back on those that provide campaign funds and have the lobbyists who essentially write the bills. This is why we will never see public financing in the electoral process.

Ivy_B
Ivy_B

@tommyudo @@buffalo.barnes102

No, you're right. I was thinking that they can often go from other airports, but in any case don't have the same waiting deal that ordinary travelers have. Waiting on a private jet is infinitely better than even in an airport lounge, let alone a waiting area.

I just read a book where there was a bit of such travel and it just bubbled into my brain.