Chairman Yarmuth Opening Statement at Hearing on Protecting Congress’ Power of the Purse & the Rule of Law

Mar 11, 2020

Washington, D.C.— Kentucky Congressman John Yarmuth, Chairman of the House Budget Committee, gave the following opening statement at today’s hearing on Congress’ power of the purse, its role in the American system of government, and what actions Congress can take to further safeguard its constitutional responsibility. Remarks as prepared are below:

In Federalist 51, James Madison said that if we were governed by angels “neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary.” Since that is not the case, our Founders purposefully embedded a structure of checks and balances into our Constitution to ensure a separation of powers. After fighting a war to rid themselves of a king, the core goal of our Constitution was to divide powers between the branches to prevent any one branch from gaining dominance and creating a new monarchy. 

The Founders knew that money – and who controls it – is fundamentally important in a democratic government. They were adamant that Congress control the power of the purse since it can act as a critical check on the President and – because of the House’s bi-annual elections for members – it is the branch most accountable to the people.

Congress has carried out this constitutional responsibility to control spending by enacting foundational laws to prevent the executive branch from misspending – laws like the Anti-Deficiency Act and the Impoundment Control Act. But despite Congress’ commitment to fulfilling its role, its ability to follow through and conduct oversight of executive spending has been increasingly challenged. Over time, as Presidents and agencies have sought to claim more control over spending, they have circumvented the law, ignored the law, and even broken the law. Often without repercussions.

This threat to the American experiment transcends presidents, parties, or politics. And if defending our institution and the basic premise of our democracy is not reason enough to strengthen our laws, then I would point to the hundreds of millions of people impacted by executive misspending and overreach: the American people.

The erosion of our nation’s separation of powers poses tangible and destructive impacts for constituents, states and localities, and the operation of government. Our communities count on the funds we appropriate. Whether it’s disaster relief, infrastructure investments, improving our military bases and housing, or strengthening our education and health care systems, the American people need to know that when their representatives in Congress pass an appropriations bill and it is signed into law, a structure is in place to ensure that that money gets to the people who need it. 

That is why the growing lack of transparency around how the executive branch uses non-public apportionments to exert control over agencies’ spending is a major problem. Too often this leaves the American people and our allies abroad wondering whether, when, and how they will get the support they need – and were promised by Congress. To help protect and enforce its spending decisions, Congress established the Government Accountability Office, a non-partisan legislative office charged with investigating and reporting on violations of budget and appropriations laws. Since its inception, GAO has uncovered numerous instances of executive misspending and impoundment. But even this non-partisan agency has faced executive stonewalling, underscoring the need for stronger laws that demand compliance. 

For Congress to remain a co-equal branch of government and fulfill its constitutional responsibility to control how the people’s tax dollars are spent, we must reassert Congress’ control over spending and ensure we are the ones holding the purse strings. Increasing transparency and accountability will enable Congress to provide the oversight of the executive branch that our Founders intended.

We are holding this hearing at a time when there is a growing interest in strengthening our constitutional checks and balances. But our nation’s separation of powers did not break down over night. Decades of Presidents and federal agencies testing the limits of their executive powers, a changing world that requires quick government action and access to resources, and an increasingly divided Congress more focused on what divides us than what can bring us together have all exacerbated this clear and present threat to our democracy. But recent and high-profile executive abuses of budget and appropriations laws including withholding foreign aid, diverting domestic disaster relief, and reprogramming defense funds have brought Congress’ power of the purse into the spotlight, and as a result, the American people are demanding action.

Today we will have the opportunity to explore reforms that will help our government better serve the people and operate more like the democracy our Founders envisioned. I look forward to what our expert witnesses have to say.