Congress, you may remember from A.P. U.S. History, has power of the purse. Though “power of the purse” may sound like the lamest superpower ever, it’s actually a real-life power. And it’s about as cool as any superpower, since, unlike heat-vision, it actually exists. But our non-super representatives do a pretty bad job at wielding it.
There are three specific problems with the way congress guards our purse. First, bills are often cooked up with plenty of pork and rushed through Congress for a vote before they can be thoroughly read. One of my favorite examples of this was the largely unread emergency funding after Hurricane Katrina, which wound up paying $236 million for cruise ships to house refugees, at a price of $300 per person per night.
Second, there is no way to distinguish between voting against a particularly irresponsible bill and voting against the principles of its program. For example, John McCain was derided in the debates for voting against funding for alternative energy. The charge stuck despite his clean record on the environment (for a Republican) and his insistence that his main purpose in doing so was to vote against the wasteful earmarks included in the bill. Our lawmakers are understandably nervous about leaving themselves open to such ploys when election time rolls around.
Third, and in a similar vein, it is difficult to separate the debate over funding from the debate over the merits of a program itself. For example, last year the Democrats tried to expand the SCHIP program for children’s health care. The program called for giving federal funding to states to run their own health care programs for underprivileged kids But since states would set their own guidelines for income levels that qualified for the program, it isn’t hard to predict that bluer states (which usually run more programs aimed at social justice) would make flexible guidelines and redder states (which generally favor less spending) would make more inflexible guidelines.
Furthermore, the funding was supposed to come from an increased tobacco tax that would inevitably fall on tobacco-producing (red) states. The SCHIP campaign’s greatest accomplishment was that its supporters successfully painted Republicans as children-haters. I imagine most Americans would have supported spending federal money to save children’s lives, but I suspect they also would have disapproved of allowing one group of states to raid other states for cash. When it came to the floor, Democrats talked about the children and Republicans talked about taxes. It wasn’t a surprise that nothing got done. (The bill passed both houses of Congress, but President Bush vetoed it, and Congress upheld the veto.)
The solution is to separate the vote on programs from the vote on the funding. This would allow for two separate debates. It would allow senators and representatives to declare their support for initiatives like children’s health care or alternative energy while still demanding responsible funding. They would be able to make better choices without worrying that it might hurt them in a coming election. And they could avoid killing good bills just because of a few bad clauses.
Additionally, the separation of votes of principle from votes of funding would mean that lawmakers would have a chance to go back and fully read quickly-passed pork-filled bills, unfunding those wasteful projects that managed to sneak through. It is worth noting that some officials do vote for bills with which they fundamentally disagree for the sake of pet projects snuck into the text. The new separation must have a mechanism for balancing the special interest and public interest, such as allowing representatives whose pet projects were cut during the spending vote to uncast their original vote.
Such a separation would be a boon for our generation. Too often the cost of new programs is not taken into account and our generation gets pushed deeper in debt. We can only gain from forcing representatives to consider not just the benefit but also the cost of their programs.
Nate Schwalb is a freshman in Ezra Stiles College.