A cloud hangs over the U.S. House of Representatives in Washington, Oct. 17. Photo: jonathan ernst/Reuters

WSJ – October 26, 2023

Letter to the Editor

Only an Amendment Could Restrain Spending

Congress simply can’t help itself when it appropriates funds.

In “Repeal the 1974 Budget Law That Fuels the Shutdown Cycle” (op-ed, Oct. 12), Wisconsin’s Sen. Ron Johnson and Rep. Mike Gallagher remind me of the kid who falls off his bike and then kicks the bike. Runaway spending and massive increases in the national debt were not caused by the 1974 legislation but by the inability of Congress to restrain itself when it appropriates funds.

I served as head of the Office of Legislative Affairs at the Justice Department when that legislation was introduced. We intended it to provide a method by which Congress could exercise greater control over the appropriation process by establishing a timetable for adopting spending measures, a new Congressional Budget Office and a reduced role for the president. As the authors concede, Congress has refused to follow the scheme established by the legislation in all but four years since 1974. The problem is not the budget law.

I also testified in support of presidential impoundment power and advocated, on behalf of the administration at the time, for the adoption of a balanced-budget constitutional amendment. In both of those efforts, I argued that Congress would not likely resist the temptation to buy votes using increased federal spending.

The main problem with a new legislative fix, which the authors favor, is that Congress cannot legally bind itself even by its own legislative restrictions. It will continue to override its own legislation or ignore it, as it has since 1974. Only a constitutional amendment would address the lack of congressional discipline.

Patrick M. McSweeney

Powhatan, Va.

The Wall Street Journal