Build A Wall

By Peter O’Brien

Senior Fellow

Last week Congress passed an omnibus spending bill and the President signed it. It funded the wall – in part. Then there was some more yelling by nearly everyone about what it said or didn’t say.

Here’s what I saw:

Another omnibus spending bill. A $1,300,000,000,000 (that’s 1.3 trillion) omnibus bill, a demonstration that Congress isn’t doing its job.

What is Congress’s prime job? To pass a full budget. By 30 September of each year. Each department and agency puts together a proposed budget, which are presented to House and Senate, debated individually in committee, with various opportunities to amend and adjust, and eventually, after some adjustments, sent to the full House and Senate, voted on, and if passed, (I’ve left out a bunch of steps here) the bill is sent to the President who either signs it or vetos it. If he signs it, it becomes law. If vetoed, it goes back to Congress and they can either accept the veto, override the veto, or amend it and send it back.

That takes place for – supposedly – every one of our dollars (and they are all our dollars) spent by Congress.

But what about the wall? Would that be the wall that was already approved in 2006 and again in 2013? In 2006 Senators Clinton, Obama, Schumer and Feinstein all voted for it; in 2013 the bill was authored by Senator Schumer and after Senate passage, President Obama called on House Republicans to team with Democrats – lead by Nancy Pelosi, to pass the bill. That bill was supposed to finish the barriers and surveillance started in the 2006 bill. Cost? The 2006 bill (the one everyone liked) costs were forecast – to build and then maintain the wall for 25 years – at $50 billion. So, what’s the point about $5 billion?

Well, Congress, by law, can only commit money for – at most – two years at a time. So, money needed to be “authorized and appropriated” to finish the wall.

But, Pelosi hates Trump. Schumer hates Trump. So, no money. Is there also a piece to this that some folks on the left don’t like Trump tightening up on immigration? You bet.

But in the middle of their hate, they aren’t doing their jobs. Informed deliberation is supposed to take place for each department and agency in our government. But what we get, far too often, because Congress is too distracted to actually do their jobs, is “omnibus” bills, a thousand or more pages long, including funding for many agencies – all jammed together, nearly always forcing the President to sign even if there are provisions to which he objects.

What we – the people who pay for this – get is a huge bill, usually poorly worded, with a provisions that have not been properly assessed and debated, and are often dangerous or expensive.

And, then, there’s what you never see: the rest of the budget.

The 2019 federal budget is about $4.4 trillion. $3.1 trillion is entitlements and interest on the debt. (The “beauty” of entitlements is that Congress really doesn’t need to vote on them. They only vote on changes; no change, no need to vote; the entitlement programs – many of which are indexed to inflation, simply grind on, no appropriating of funds, no authorizing spending.)

$3.1 trillion – not really debated.

Of the $1.3 trillion they did vote on, at least 400 billion (30%) is pay for government employees and the military, and no one will vote to cut pay. In fact, only a bit more than half of discretionary spending is seriously debated each year; let’s call if $800 billion. That’s just 18% of federal spending that actually gets debated.

And when we have an omnibus spending bill? Then there’s essentially no debate, at least no debate that leads to hard decisions, where Congress actually does its job.

Mrs. Pelosi gets to pontificate, our money gets spent, the political games continue in Washington. But for the rest of us, it’s just Congress spending more of our money, more intrusion into our lives, and more federal debt.

The Federal Government is a mess. At the root is Congress, which simply refuses to do its job. How about we insist they all go to work. Not on favorite projects, not on witch hunts, just do the basic job: pass next year’s budget. Let’s wall-in Congress and keep until they pass the 2020 budget. Before anyone starts campaigning for President, spend the next 8 months just passing the 2020 budget?