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Stop the Omnibus, I Want to Get Off

Aliens: Omnibus
Of course I don't want to stop funding the Disabled Veterans Homelessness Prevention Fund, but why do we have to bundle it in with the Weyland-Yutani subsidies?
If we take it as a given that power corrupts--and that absolute power corrupts absolutely--one of the strengths of the American system of government is that it endeavors to keep power at a minimum by distributing it through its three branches. In theory, no one branch is capable of functioning on its own without the support of the other two, but because our system is deliberately set up to be adversarial and partisan, it is rare for all three branches to wholly agree on anything. Gridlock, in other words, is a feature of the system, not a bug. Our government is designed to move slowly and carefully, which can be frustrating for those who believe it should react immediately to whatever crises arise on any given day.

The system of checks and balances that keeps our nation from descending into a monarchy, a parliamentary system, a theocracy, or any kind of despotic tyranny is always in danger, though, by those who seek to push the behemoth of government through its inherent obstacles. For decades, if not a century, one of the greatest threats has been the ever-increasing power of the executive branch, of the presidency. Our founders were adamant that the president not be a monarch, that his power be restricted by the courts and by the Congress. As time has passed, presidents frustrated by their inability to achieve all of their ambitions have pushed the envelope, testing what they can get away with. President Nixon was impeached for it.

In 2008, not long after articles of impeachment had been drawn up against President Bush, Senator Barack Obama, running for president, recognized this growing threat. He said, "The biggest problems that weíre facing right now have to do with George Bush trying to bring more and more power into the executive branch and not go through Congress at all, and thatís what I intend to reverse when Iím president of the United States of America." Fast forward to today, and President Barack Obama is now promising to take extraordinary executive actions to force immigration reform, even though those actions are opposed by a plurality of the American people and a majority of the Congress (including many members of his own political party). He has proclaimed that this is necessary, because he cannot wait for Congress to reach a compromise. His impatience with gridlock somehow supercedes his oath to faithfully execute the law.

Power of the Purse
Can you use it to wage a war on women?
Constitutionally speaking, the Congress has a check against a president who decides to create legislation from the oval office (or use "prosecutorial discretion" as a lame excuse to ignore laws he doesn't approve of): the "power of the purse." All federal government spending starts in the Congress, specifically the House of Representatives. The founders made it clear that, should the president try to use the government for something Congress disapproves of, the House could simply not provide funding for it. For roughly the first two hundred years of United States history, this worked.

So why can't Congress do that now? The answer is simple: omnibus spending. Congress can indeed threaten to withhold funding to the federal agencies tasked with executing the president's forthcoming orders, but it can only do this by threatening to "shut down the government." This is because, since about 1980, the Congress has decided to put all spending appropriations into one bill, the so-called omnibus budget. Congress has reveled in the pork this has allowed them to hide and the much lighter workload it has put on them, but it has come at a dire price. It is now all but impossible to pass budgets a piece at a time, as the founders intended, because it would force Congress to reveal all the unpopular provisions they have thrown in the omnibus over the last three decades, not to mention the fact that it would force them to spend time drafting, debating, amending, and voting on dozens of bills instead of just one.

Senator McCain asleep
Don't cut into their naptime
The inevitable excuse is that the federal government is simply too big to fund piecemeal, but this is laughable when it comes from a group of wealthy men and women who are only on the job for roughly 130 days a year. Surely they could find the time to look a little deeper into their own budgetary process, if only they had the incentive to do so. But even if it were true that the federal government has grown too much for even the Congress to adequately account for it, then the solution would be elegant: shrink the government. If there are agencies that aren't doing anything but draining the Congressional pocketbook, then it should be relatively easy for Congress to fix it by no longer funding such agencies.

But again, the omnibus. Let's say the Congress passes an omnibus spending package that funds the entire government but defunds one of the presidents' expensive pet projects. The president can veto it and claim that Congress is responsible for the subsequent shutdown because it wouldn't pass a bill that he or she could sign. The American people, unwilling to get into the nitty-gritty of policy, would nod their heads and point their fingers at the Congress, promising a reckoning come election day. This is why Congress rarely does it and never gets away with it; it's political suicide.

Beaver killed by fallen tree
Foresight isn't one of government's strong suits
They have, by their own hands, nullified their most effective check against an out-of-control executive branch. Is it any surprise, therefore, that the president's powers have been on a precipitous rise for decades now, with presidents on both sides of the political spectrum breaking new ground in the quest for absolute power? Senator Obama was absolutely correct in identifying this as one of the "biggest problems we're facing right now." But, because he hears the siren song of power promising to give him a legacy despite his inability to sway Congress to his will, he has abandoned his convictions and continued the presidential tradition of increasingly brazen assaults on our system of checks and balances.

This should trouble people of both political parties, and we need to put a stop to it immediately. Congress must do its job and do away with omnibus spending. I don't care if it forces them to air their dirty laundry, make more transparent the special favors they've given to political donors, or pencil in an extra month or two of work. Governance is not supposed to be a cushy form of employment, and power is not something that should be so willingly given up by our elected leaders. It would be easy to sit back and blame the president for his usurpations, but Congress needs to wake up and realize that the fault is not in their stars but in themselves.


-e. magill 11/20/2014










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