Quixotic: Make Congress Do Its Job

I wonder if someone could sue Congress for not doing its job?

Congress has two responsibilities: fund the government, and make the laws the country needs. It also has a responsibility to act as a check on the powers of the executive and judicial branches, by passing new laws as necessary to react to judicial actions and by overriding Presidential vetoes when appropriate.

Prior laws fix certain obligations upon the government. Some of those obligations from from laws that wouldn’t be passed by the current Congress but which won’t be repealed by the current combination of Congress and President. The rules of the Senate, in particular, seem designed to thwart change, to preserve the status quo.

I was thinking about this last night after a piece on National Pubic Radio about the Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s inability to regulate the healthcare industry. OSHA was created in 1970 and given a sufficiently broad mandate, but politicians beholden to business interests (in opposition to labor interests) or possibly ideologically wed to the notion of “small government” have made it more onerous for OSHA to publish new rules and have starved OSHA of the funds it needs to fulfill its obligations to the citizens of the USA.

Think about this: OSHA has a legal mandate to do a certain job, and this mandate won’t be repealed by the legislative process any time soon. It needs a specific number of people to perform the tasks it’s obligated to do, and having that many people to inspects work places and that many other people to prosecute employers not in compliance or otherwise compel the employers to comply takes some amount of money. That amount of money might be uncertain because we may not know how much such people can demand on the open market or how many people we’d need to enforce the law after inspections discover some number of violations, but there’s a certain amount, and agency officials can fairly clearly demonstrate, “if you don’t fund us for N people with X amount of skills and experience, we can’t do our job, because you haven’t funded us.”

In a similar vein (no pun intended), Federal enforcement of mine safety law is notoriously lax. Mines go uninspected. Violations go unprosecuted. Sentences and fines go unimposed and uncollected. It’s not because mining is a safe job in America; chronic illness and the risk of accidents that cause death or disability remain high. Again, there aren’t enough enforcement agents to inspect mines and enough prosecutors to force mine owners to comply and to accept their punishments.

National parks and national forests operate on reduced schedules and at reduced capacities. Facilities are allowed to wear down because maintenance and replacement budgets have been sacrificed. America’s stewardship of its land and resources is at risk because, again, Congress won’t fund the appropriate Federal agencies.

Even the military suffers from fiscal choking. How much equipment is out of service because of a lack of operational maintenance? Some of these problems may come from choices made by commanders about how to spend funds allotted to them, but at some point, Congress has the responsibility to oversee how the money is allots is spent, and if the Pentagon is somehow diverting expense money from upkeep to some other purpose, this is one of the ways Congress is supposed to keep the Executive branch in check.

Congress refuses to fund fully the obligations of the Federal government. In particular, it refuses to raise tax rates to pay for current expenses, and it refuses to provide agencies with the funds they need to do their jobs. It lets events like the sequestration of 2013 occur, when sequestration was supposed to be the threat that was so awful that it would force Congress to arrive at some solution, any other solution, to avoid such a gross malfunction of the Federal government.

I would argue that the Executive Branch should spend the money it needs to spend to fulfill its legal obligations, regardless of whether Congress can be bothered to allocate the funds or not. This challenges the premise that Congress has “the power of the purse,” but clearly “the power of the purse” is no longer a constructive force; it’s a destructive force. The Judicial Branch and the Executive branch should collectively force Congress to change the laws of this country to reflect their vision even while funding the Executive branch to enforce the laws currently in force.

Congress, or specifically the House Judiciary Committee, recently complained about the Executive branch’s recent decision to defer enforcement of some points of immigration law. This complaint did not acknowledge Congress’s refusal to fund the executive branch to enforce the law, nor their refusal to confirm enough judges to provide speedy trials of people accused of immigration violations, nor even the lack of facilities for all these trials.

Why was the Congress complaining about this one area of lax enforcement instead of OSHA’s limited ability to fulfill its mission, or the EPA’s limited ability to fulfill its mission, or any of a thousand agencies that are too starved of operating funds to do their whole jobs?

It’s all well and good to brag about reducing taxes, but since no one has repealed that many obligations of the Federal government, it’s false savings.

If they want “less government,” they need to repeal the laws that obligated the government to take on the greater roles, the roles they now regret. In the mean time, they are obligated to fund the government to execute the laws passed by their predecessors in Congress.

Says me.

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