The Constitution and Other Matters

As Members of Congress watch the clock run out for funding Fiscal Year 2024, I thought it might be good to refresh our memories of how the legislative process works.  This is my simplified explanation of a complex process.  I worked as a staff member in the House of Representatives for a brief period in 1998-1999.[1]  I worked long hours for very little pay and met some amazingly dedicated people who cared about our country.  We toiled together on the process (described below) through two annual cycles to fund the Department of Defense.  There was a lot of back and forth between staff (House-Senate, Members’ personal staffs-Committee staffs, military-committee staff, just to name a few) and outside experts on every issue.  It is a long an arduous process, but a necessary one.  When Congress does not go through this imperfect process, I feel cheated and so I must admit, this is a raw issue for me and it always will be.

Additionally, I worked as a defense contractor and manager of programs for more than a decade.  That meant that people worked for me and I did my best to look out for their welfare.  When the government shuts down it is illegal for contractors to continue their work so I can tell you now that every company that contracts with the United States Government is spending countless work hours this week going through a human resources nightmare.  Creating mountains of paperwork and setting all employees on edge.  You see generally, if you don’t have a contract, you get laid off.  What does that mean for healthcare, employment status, seniority, vacation leave?  All of those questions have to be answered for every single employee.  I was responsible for about sixty people in the last year of my tenure.  It was a nightmare.  At one point, one of my team had a heart attack and I spent much of my day on the phone with HR ensuring he had insurance coverage.  I tell you this because it is vital that EVERY American understand this is not someone else’s problem.  It is mine and it is yours.

I hold each and every one of our Senators and Members of the House of Representatives responsible.  They have a job to do and 52 weeks to do it.  They really only have two – oversight of the Executive Branch and to fund the government.  They have chosen to procrastinate, yet again.  So be it.  But regardless of the ticking clock, a budget will eventually get passed, the smug will rise among those who consider themselves superior, but in my humble opinion we are all poorer for the continual game of chicken.  Smart policy decisions are not made in haste or at gun point.  There are issues to discuss, so discuss them.  You are legislators.  You should be focusing on legislating and that means you negotiate and yes, compromise.  Don’t go home to your districts and suggest you have done all you can do.  You haven’t and neither have we, the voters.  I wish we could fire the lot of you.  I wish we could hire people who cared more for our country and its citizens than their own re-election and fickle followers’ social media comments.  They no longer seem to exist or at least they don’t hold office.  At the very least I can remind you of how the process is supposed to work.

Article 1, Sec 7 & 8 of the Constitution of the United States lays out the powers of Congress, specifically Members of the House of Representatives.  In effect Sec 7 states that the House of Representatives shall be responsible the origination of all Bills for raising Revenue. (Section 8 explains the responsibilities related to national defense.).  Neither require the Congress to do so within a fiscal year (a date that has changed over the last 200+ years), but annual budgets are the method most democratic bureaucracies utilize.  The Congressional process used to begin in January (although hearings on specific subjects can be held at any time) following the release of the Executive Branch’s budget proposal.  Responsible committees hold hearings, listening to expert testimony on requirements, problems, limitations and the like in order to formulate a budget, which undergoes extreme scrutiny from experts inside and outside the government, as well as the public.  After all the hashing out of the issues, the two sides of Congress vote on their respective versions, a conference committee is formed, comprised of both Senators and Representatives (and their staffs) to get to a single budget for each Executive Branch Department.  There are many cooks’ hands on each respective pot of stew, but for the most part, a bill is meant to be passed for each department (or omnibus – a combination of all or some) and sent to the President to sign.  The process is never smooth or easy.  It is not meant to be.  But it is meant to be a process that is undertaken in a serious manner by our Senators and Representatives.  And it is a yearly requirement to fund our government.  Members essentially have 52 weeks to undertake this process.  Regardless of how you feel about our government, the direction of the country, or your Representative and Senator, each one of them represents you and they are not doing the job they were elected and sworn to undertake.

Constitutional Amendment 27 (ratified May 7, 1992) prevents Congress from adjusting the salaries of its members until after the next election.  That sounds great, because it was intended to forbid Members from giving themselves a raise.  However, in practice it also means that We, the People, cannot place a hold on their compensation for not doing their jobs.  What a shame. Come Monday morning many government functions and employees will be “temporarily” laid off for an indeterminate time, while “essential” government employees will go to work to do their jobs without knowing when they will get paid.  It is so unfortunate that we cannot hold Congress to the same standard.

Abraham Lincoln said, ““Nearly all men can stand adversity, but if you want to test a man’s character, give him power.”  Perhaps we should all try to convince Congress that they not only have the power to disagree, but the Power and requirement to act.

[1] I was a Research Assistant for the Policy Staff of the Full Committee of the House Armed Services Committee.  (When I was hi1red the committee had been renamed as the House National Services Committee, a name it held for one congressional cycle, then returned to the historic and current name).

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