House Takes Steps to Protect the Power of the Purse

House Ways and Means Oversight Subcommittee Chairman Peter Roskam (IL-6) recently convened a hearing entitled, “Defying the Constitution: The Administration’s Unlawful Funding of the Cost Sharing Reduction Program,”  examining the Obama administration’s funding of a key Obamacare subsidy without Congressional appropriation.

The cost sharing reduction (CSR) program is one of a number of Obamacare provisions aimed at reducing health care costs for low-income individuals. Unlike the law’s tax credits, which help consumers pay for insurance premiums, the goal of the CSR program is to reduce the cost of out-of-pocket health care expenses, such as deductibles and co-pays, and is provided to insurers in the form of a direct subsidy.

Like other facets of the failed health care law, taxpayers have valid concerns about the utility and scope of the CSR program. However, actions on the part of the Administration have put the program at the center of a dispute over much bigger questions about the role of Congress and the power of the Executive.

These came to a head in May when a federal judge found that payments made to insurance companies under the CSR program were illegal due to the fact that Congress had never directly appropriated those funds. Instead, the Administration had used funds that were allocated for other purposes to funnel funds to insurance companies, claiming that they had authority to do so under Obamacare.

In his opening remarks, Chairman Roskam explained that the Committee’s investigation was a way for Congress to protect their constitutional powers:

Administration officials who constructed this plan and moved ahead with it chose to fund the CSR payments from money that Congress designated for other programs. In other words, all of those individuals chose to hijack Congress’s power of the purse and make those payments in violation of the Constitution and federal criminal law. To this day, they have made more than $7 billion in CSR payments without congressional authorization.  

Ways and Means Committee Chairman Kevin Brady (R-TX) also made the case that regardless of the pending litigation, the issue at stake is congressional authority:

This is not about healthcare. In my view the Affordable Care Act is failing two years in advance. But that's not this issue. It is about whether any White House not just this one can ignore repeatedly the explicit directions of Congress that no dollars will be spent on a specified program. This is what is at the heart of this, whether you are a Republican or Democrat you ought to be interested in this report and in this power. Because at that point there’s no need for a legislative branch, any White House not just this one can choose which programs to fund and which to ignore.

Regardless of whether you think Obamacare has been a boom or bust for taxpayers, the role and relationships of the three branches of our federal government deserve serious consideration.

The use of taxpayer funds for that which was not appropriated by Congress is in direct contradiction with the checks and balances enshrined in the Constitution. Any Administration that embarks on this course of action is setting a dangerous precedent. By usurping the House’s power of purse, future Administrations could have ultimate discretion on how tax dollars are allocated, upending our current system and depriving Congress of an essential means of oversight - leaving the President essentially unchecked.

Even as taxpayers look forward to the resolution of the litigation surrounding this issue, it’s important that Congress take every opportunity to exert their oversight authority and hold the Executive Branch accountable for unconstitutional actions.