Sunday, July 28, 2013

A Less Well-Known Turning Point


Among those who believe that America still possesses a constitutional system that can be "saved," several alleged turning points (toward the worse) get lots of coverage. The Civil War and the New Deal tend to bookend those turning points, and about midway between come three others: The Federal Reserve system, the 16th Amendment (income tax) and the 17th Amendment (direct popular election of US Senators).

There's a fourth one that I suspect has had at least as much impact, but that we hardly ever hear about: The Budget and Accounting Act of 1921.

That's the law which created a US government budget process in which the executive branch plays a big and mandatory part. Whenever you hear something about "the president's budget request" in the news, well, that's something the president is required to send to Congress under the Act.

Not to say that the executive branch never played a role in federal budgets before the Act, but the Act explicitly knocked over the whole "separation of powers" house of cards by turning the executive branch into part of the legislative branch for budget purposes.

Instead of just executing (or vetoing) the budget and its priorities as passed by Congress, the president is now not just permitted, but required, to tell Congress what he thinks it should spend money on and how much. And naturally Congress tends to use the president's budget request at least as a starting point in its own deliberations.

Bad idea, and the source of all kinds of really silly drama. When you see one of those arguments between the White House and Capitol Hill, presented as "constitutional crisis," over whether spending on electric dog polisher research and development should be increased by 4.37% or 4.49%, it's the Budget and Accounting Act of 1921 at work. If only one branch was proposing numbers, there'd be nothing to argue about except on larger issues with far greater disparities of vision.

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