In an aggressive bid to grab back the “power of the purse,” conservative lawmakers are targeting a loophole that lets at least 16 federal agencies keep cash from fees and fines instead of turning them over to the Treasury.
The campaign for the Agency Accountability Act, picking up steam on Capitol Hill, aims to choke off the money grab by Cabinet departments from Justice to Interior and agencies such as the Securities and Exchange Commission.
Utah Sen. Mike Lee, leading the fight in the Senate, said that agencies “can bring in the money to do what they want and they can make the law and then they can enforce that same law and then become a closed-loop system, one in which accountability can be found nowhere.”
In doing so, he said, agencies take on the “characteristic of a sovereign despot.”
It’s a big loophole. A recent House Oversight and Government Reform Committee report said that agencies over five years collected $83 billion in fines and fees and kept $31 billion.
Justice keeps so much of its collections, about 40 percent, that it funds 15 percent of the department’s budget. Other agencies, including the Department of Interior and the Social Security Administration, keep 100 percent of their collections.
While there is no evidence the money, typically used to fund pet projects, is misused, it is spending that skips required congressional scrutiny.
“The Constitution gives Congress – and only Congress – the power and responsibility to direct spending of federal dollars. The power of the purse is one of Congress’ most potent tools for controlling federal bureaucrats, which is why so many agencies have sought to secure their own revenue streams, operating free from the scrutiny and accountability of congressional oversight,” Lee said.
The senator cited the loophole as an example of Congress’ shirking its responsibilities and allowing the executive branch to create its own “administrative state.”
“Many Americans now feel that they are not in control of their own government. It’s because they aren’t. The administrative state is designed to be insulated from politics – that is, it’s designed to be insulated from the will of the people,” he said at a Federalist Society event.
The Agency Accountability Act got a big boost last week when conservative groups Heritage Action and the Club for Growth embraced it.
“Congress needs to reassert its power of the purse in being able to direct these agencies in how they spend monies that come into the Treasury,” said David McIntosh, the president of Club for Growth.
Lee agreed. “Passing the Agency Accountability Act would go a long way toward putting Congress – and by extension, the American people – back in charge of how federal bureaucracies spend money.”
Paul Bedard, the Washington Examiner’s “Washington Secrets” columnist, can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org