Government Shutdown – Thomas Sowell

Thomas Sowell

Thomas Sowell offers his take on the shutdown:

Even when it comes to something as basic, and apparently as simple and straightforward, as the question of who shut down the federal government, there are diametrically opposite answers, depending on whether you talk to Democrats or to Republicans.

There is really nothing complicated about the facts. The Republican-controlled House of Representatives voted all the money required to keep all government activities going — except for ObamaCare.

This is not a matter of opinion. You can check the Congressional Record.

As for the House of Representatives’ right to grant or withhold money, that is not a matter of opinion either. You can check the Constitution of the United States. All spending bills must originate in the House of Representatives, which means that Congressmen there have a right to decide whether or not they want to spend money on a particular government activity.

Whether ObamaCare is good, bad or indifferent is a matter of opinion. But it is a matter of fact that members of the House of Representatives have a right to make spending decisions based on their opinion.

ObamaCare is indeed “the law of the land,” as its supporters keep saying, and the Supreme Court has upheld its Constitutionality.

But the whole point of having a division of powers within the federal government is that each branch can decide independently what it wants to do or not do, regardless of what the other branches do, when exercising the powers specifically granted to that branch by the Constitution.

The hundreds of thousands of government workers who have been laid off are not idle because the House of Representatives did not vote enough money to pay their salaries or the other expenses of their agencies — unless they are in an agency that would administer ObamaCare.

Since we cannot read minds, we cannot say who — if anybody — “wants to shut down the government.” But we do know who had the option to keep the government running and chose not to. The money voted by the House of Representatives covered everything that the government does, except for ObamaCare.

The Senate chose not to vote to authorize that money to be spent, because it did not include money for ObamaCare. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid says that he wants a “clean” bill from the House of Representatives, and some in the media keep repeating the word “clean” like a mantra. But what is unclean about not giving Harry Reid everything he wants?

If Senator Reid and President Obama refuse to accept the money required to run the government, because it leaves out the money they want to run ObamaCare, that is their right. But that is also their responsibility.

You cannot blame other people for not giving you everything you want. And it is a fraud to blame them when you refuse to use the money they did vote, even when it is ample to pay for everything else in the government.

When Barack Obama keeps claiming that it is some new outrage for those who control the money to try to change government policy by granting or withholding money, that is simply a bald-faced lie. You can check the history of other examples of “legislation by appropriation” as it used to be called.

Whether legislation by appropriation is a good idea or a bad idea is a matter of opinion. But whether it is both legal and not unprecedented is a matter of fact.

Perhaps the biggest of the big lies is that the government will not be able to pay what it owes on the national debt, creating a danger of default. Tax money keeps coming into the Treasury during the shutdown, and it vastly exceeds the interest that has to be paid on the national debt.

Even if the debt ceiling is not lifted, that only means that government is not allowed to run up new debt. But that does not mean that it is unable to pay the interest on existing debt.

None of this is rocket science. But unless the Republicans get their side of the story out — and articulation has never been their strong suit — the lies will win. More important, the whole country will lose.

Indeed.

It is fact that spending bills originate in the House of Representatives.  I would rather have the House vote to allocate enough money to the budget short of the amount required for Obamacare and then let the actors figure out what they wanna cut, but that’s details.

22 responses to “Government Shutdown – Thomas Sowell

  1. Except Thomas Sowell doesn’t know what he’s talking about. The country, luckily, knows where to place blame. The Democrats risk overreaching in trying to undo the sequester – but I suspect the compromise they’ll ultimately come up with will recognize that neither the sequester nor Obamacare can be eliminated in a kind of ransom hostage taking threat to the stability of the world economy mode. I think a Susan Collins approach will ultimately be the way out of this crisis. But I think despite Sowell’s efforts to rationalize and propagandize, the GOP (esp. the tea party, which has the establishment GOP lashing out angrily against it) will be the most hurt by this.

    • Except Thomas Sowell doesn’t know what he’s talking about.

      I suspect he knows a great deal more about it than either you or I.

      The Democrats risk overreaching in trying to undo the sequester – but I suspect the compromise they’ll ultimately come up with will recognize that neither the sequester nor Obamacare can be eliminated in a kind of ransom hostage taking threat to the stability of the world economy mode.

      To be fair, the democrats asking for something more resembles a negotiation than not asking for anything except a clean bill.

      If we can undo some of the damage that Obamacare is, and make sequestration cuts that make sense, maybe we all win.

  2. Jumping in on what Scott said above, Sowell is lying by omission if not worse. Legislation through appropriation has historically served two purposes:
    1) Funding programs that couldn’t be enacted by separate bill, thus creating new laws through budgeting.
    2) Attaching restrictions to funding to control the manner in which it is used, which is almost exclusively used to control executive use of money in foreign relations and war

    I have never seen an example where legislation by appropriation was used to effectively repeal legislation enacted by Congress. Can you find one? Searching for any real examples of “legislation through appropriation”, as Sowell suggests, turns up very little by way of evidence, and mostly gets me hundreds of copies of his op-ed being reposted through the right wing blogosphere.

    By the way, have you ever looked at the Constitution. Being a modern, living document guy myself, I have no problem with the idea that Congress proposes how money is to be allocated and used. But if you’re a strict Constitutionalist as you’ve claimed before, you’ll be hard pressed to find anything giving them the authority to do so. Rather, they only have the authority to raise revenue, not to decide how to spend it.

    It’ll tweak you even more that the only part of Article I that gives the House special authority is Section 7, which explicitly says raising revenue. The section that has always been the basis of the spending power is Section 8, which only refers to “the Congress”, not the House.

    Long story short, Sowell is twisting facts to support his point, and it appears that he’s full of it. Moreover, this is exactly the kind of argument that a Constitutional literalist should hate.

    • I have never seen an example where legislation by appropriation was used to effectively repeal legislation enacted by Congress.

      It is really hard to find a record of all debt ceiling negotiations.

      But here is one example:

      http://www.outsidethebeltway.com/negotiating-over-the-debt-ceiling-is-not-unprecedented/

      The House and Senate, in November 1989, agreed as part of a debt ceiling increase to repeal a tax rule approved three years earlier barring discrimination in employer-paid health insurance plans.

      Now, they specifically mention rule, so I don’t know if that counts. And to be very sure, that repeal was nothing of the magnitude of repealing Obamacare.

      However, the larger fact remains, the debates and negotiations surrounding the debt ceiling have been used to prosecute such things as Social Security, bombings in Cambodia and busing legislation to reduce segregation.

      Rather, they only have the authority to raise revenue, not to decide how to spend it.

      I agree and will stipulate that they have the right to decide the amount of money spent, not how it is spent specifically. That is, “Boys, we have $1,000 to spend in this year’s lodge budget. Spend as you will.”

      Defunding specific legislation is “chumpy”.

      I don’t know if that’s what you mean.

      Long story short, Sowell is twisting facts to support his point, and it appears that he’s full of it.

      That’s fair. I feel the same way about Krugman.

      • I do feel that Rules are different than Laws. Laws are enacted by Congress and must be enforced and implemented until repealed or struck down. Rules are adopted by agencies, not Congress, and if Congress finds that an agency overstepped its legislative grant, they can make it clear by defunding the extraneous activities or passing clarifying legislation. Personally, I’d rather that Congress always do it in the latter fashion rather than the former, because appropriations are messy and confusing and partisan enough as it is. If an agency is operating outside its authority because a law is unclear, then make the law clear. Anyway, long story short, Rules are substantively different than Laws.

        You’re not wrong that this isn’t the first debt ceiling hostage taking, but it IS different in the scope of what it’s after (as you noted, the “magnitude of repealing Obamacare”). I hate Douthat, but this column did a good job summing up why this is different than Reagan. http://douthat.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/10/08/debt-ceiling-blackmail-then-and-now/ Spoiler alert: There, a budget was passed by both house, with bipartisan support, and sent to a president who didn’t like it. They essentially told him to accept that budget (which implemented tax hikes and defense cuts, both within Congress’s decisionmaking anyway), or deal with a debt ceiling problem. Our hostage taking in the current House is the result of internal rules and political factions, the hostage taking in Reagan’s case was simply a conflict between branches (and Reagan was simply on the wrong side there).

        Anyway, I think we’re in agreement on a lot of this, and I wasted too much time fact checking Ryan again, but I think Sowell’s deception here far outweighs whatever beef you’ve got with Krugman, though I’m willing to look at any example of Krugman lying.

        • I think Sowell’s deception here far outweighs whatever beef you’ve got with Krugman, though I’m willing to look at any example of Krugman lying.

          Oh, my bad, I have no specific beef with Krugman here. I only bring him up because:

          1. He is far far more knowledgeable in these things than me. In fact, to even compare is downright silly.
          2. I still think he’s wrong a ton.

          So, with that in mind, I think Sowell dwarfs Erb, and you -and me- I’ll not deduct points from you for disagreeing with him.

          • Sowell is an interesting guy, but he’s prone to false equivocation whenever it serves his personal political feelings. Remember when he compared Obama to Hitler (obliquely) because of the BP relief fund? While it’s easy to cherry pick the Hitler comparison to make my point, the real absurdity is that Sowell wrote an op-ed saying that the president was single-handedly picking the pocket of private companies and redistributing it in lieu of the judicial system. In actuality, the fund was set up voluntarily by BP and was designed to avoid lawsuits but didn’t actually prevent any. Sowell views this as tantamount to extortion, however, so he simply writes that Obama is taking money from BP and giving it away. After all his histrionics he says, without explanation, “Technically, it has not been confiscated by Barack Obama, but that is a distinction without a difference.” He could have done something similar to end the debt ceiling piece, “Technically, the current GOP action is unprecedented because it seeks the repeal of a large piece of legislation and that’s never even been attempted before, but I still think it’s the same as all the other different things that have been done.”

            Just because a guy has a PhD in econ from UofC doesn’t mean he’s right, it just means he’ll know better terminology. We still need to fact check him. For example, here’s another gem:
            “The Constitution gives the House of Representatives the responsibility to originate all spending bills, based on what they think should and should not be funded. But the word “clean” is now apparently supposed to override the Constitution.”
            As I stated elsewhere, that’s not actually what the Constitution says. Sowell isn’t a lawyer, and yet he has no problem espousing (incorrectly) what he insists the Constitution says. Thus, I’m not going to give him the same deference on this debt ceiling trivia as I would on an economic matter.

  3. Nick, pleading blindness to the obvious when you don’t agree with it seems to be a running theme with you. It is quite possible to have programs authorized but not funded.

    The bill to enact obamacare was an authorization bill. That or any authorization bill does not allocate funds. That is done through an appropriations bill.

    This stuff isn’t that hard to find. Defunding or underfunding is a legitimate tool that is used all of the time at all levels of government (fed/state/local) by both parties. There are tons of laws/policies on the books that are no longer active because they have been defunded without a formal repeal of the law.

    You wanted examples? OK then. Right now there is another bill in the house attempting to defund the NSA (which was authorized by law and is funded by appropriation)-

    http://amash.house.gov/speech/amash-nsa-amendment-fact-sheet

    There. I found one. Want more? Here’s an example where Obama shows support of the same concept to end public subsidies for coal plants (a law passed to provide government monies for new coal plant construction, potentially neutered by loss of appropriation).

    http://www.enn.com/press_releases/4200

    Here’s another textbook example where both the house, senate and Obama agree to defund the appropriations bill that had something to do with horse inspections-

    http://animallawcoalition.com/will-congress-reinstate-the-defunding-of-horse-inspections/

    Here’s an example where the house defunds net neutrality through appropriations by prohibiting them from spending money on that policy-

    http://www.pcworld.com/article/220047/article.html

    I’m sure I’m making it way too simple again, but hey logic is simple.

    • Right now there is another bill in the house attempting to defund the NSA (which was authorized by law and is funded by appropriation)

      From your very own link: “The Amash-Conyers amendment ends NSA’s blanket collection of Americans’ telephone records. It does this by requiring the FISA court under Sec. 215 to order the production of records that pertain only to a person under investigation.” Nothing about defunding, just restraining executive authority through a bill.

      Here’s an example where Obama shows support of the same concept to end public subsidies for coal plants (a law passed to provide government monies for new coal plant construction, potentially neutered by loss of appropriation).

      There is not a single mention of appropriations in that story. The President is calling for an end to public financing of coal plants, but that isn’t legislating through appropriations. He’s asking congress to stop earmarking money for coal plants.

      Here’s another textbook example where both the house, senate and Obama agree to defund the appropriations bill that had something to do with horse inspections-

      I can see why you thought it was textbook, since it had the word “Defund” in it, except of course it isn’t at all what we’re talking about. For one thing, it’s bipartisan effort with support from the President and the USDA, none of whom want to be involved in this. Second, there’s no legislative mandate that the USDA have a horse inspection team, rather there are prohibitions on running horse slaughtering facilities without an inspection. So, there was no law repealed by the “defunding”, it was again the curtailing of executive action.

      Here’s an example where the house defunds net neutrality through appropriations by prohibiting them from spending money on that policy-

      Except, again, net neutrality isn’t a law, it was (sort of) a bunch of FCC rules, which Congress decided overstepped their legislative grant of power and thus Congress curtailed their implementation.

      The running theme here is that you have NO example of Congress attempting to repeal a law through defunding it.

      Ryan, do your own basic research if you want to be taken seriously. I get sick of wasting my time doing your own research to show you why your own examples are so off-the-mark. I’m sure you will take this as a win because I’m done engaging you, but I assure you that I just don’t like feeding trolls.

  4. Nick, good effort at trying to wrap it all up in semantics. Just as I predicted. Trying hard to make it complicated. Those were all perfect examples. Also, good effort at trying to disqualify the argument by calling troll.

    The fundamental problem here is that on the one hand you are trying to argue that congress can’t defund a law it’s passed. But it’s clear from your own statements you didn’t even understand the two halves of legislation that go into enacting a law 1) Authorization 2) Appropriation.

    Where were you in civics class?

    • Actually, Ryan, appropriation isn’t any fraction of enacting a law. Congress votes, President signs, it’s a law. Appropriations is how you make sure the Executive can implement a law and enforce it.

      Since you want to get into the distinctions, though, maybe you want to explain to the readership the difference between mandatory and discretionary budget items (of which the ACA is mostly in the former camp). Or maybe that’s too semantic a line, because you don’t trust any argument that can’t be analogized to your own personal checkbook.

      Government is complicated. Laws are complicated. I don’t care if people have pedigrees or not when they debate these things, but I can’t really respect anyone who thinks it’s merely a semantic difference between (1) passing an amendment to require the NSA to disclose certain activities vs. (2) not raising the debt ceiling until the other side magically defunds a mandatorily-funded health care program…

      So, instead of addressing the deficiencies in all your great examples, you have decided to make this a debate about authorization v. appropriations? Not biting on that one.

  5. Nick you’re bending the question to make it always false. Yes, no law has ever been repealed through defending because it’s easier to just defund it. The net effect is the same and that happens all of the time. You’d be foolish to state otherwise.

    Anyways the examples I gave were fine. They demonstrate the act of curtailing government policies through monetary defunding. It’s not a new or unique concept to this current debate.

    • And if I refuse to pay my taxes, then they government has less revenue and can’t do as much. Therefore, I have the power to deregulate things!

      The broad concept of “curtailing government policies” is very different from the specific and current issue of “repealing a massive set of laws by refusing to raise the debt ceiling.” Sowell says this is no different, my point is that it’s very different. You say it’s not different because, look, all these other things that are also different.

      Yes, no law has ever been repealed through defending because it’s easier to just defund it. The net effect is the same and that happens all of the time. You’d be foolish to state otherwise.

      Show me five examples of laws that were effectively repealed by defunding. Each has to be a real law, not an agency rule. Each has to be an actual law that was in effect and, because of defunding, did not take effect anymore. Once you’ve done this, I’ll accept that it happens “all of the time.” I’m going to stay here on my “Ryan doesn’t know what the hell he’s talking about chair” until you back up these statements.

    • The House doesn’t have that power alone – the Senate and President all have to sign off. And here the House — a minority in the House — has tried to force its will on the other branches. And it’s been defeated because it overstretched. If it really had the power to fund or defund, it would have won. But it doesn’t have that power on its own.

  6. Wait… I thought you weren’t going to engage me because I’m a troll. The fact that your still here leads me to believe there’s some grain of truth in my argument.

    So, by your logic, we have to assert that every policy that was ever enacted by our government by since it’s founding must stay funded unless the law is formally repealed. You know this is B.S. and it doesn’t typically work that way. The policy comes to an end through loss of appropriation. For this example, obamacare would be no different.

  7. Actually Nick, appropriation is a fundamental part of it all, and you are the one trying to muddy the distinction not me.

    Let’s just take a quote from about.com. I know that will be way to pedestrian for you but what the hell, indulge me. It’s easy, concise and states the facts. Amazingly simple.

    “There are two distinct steps to creating and funding programs and agencies in the federal budget. Most programs must be established through legislation AND funded through the appropriations process.”

    http://uspolitics.about.com/od/thefederalbudget/a/The-Difference-Between-Authorization-And-Appropriation.htm

  8. I hate to add to this at this point since then I’ll probably not only be called a troll but a spammy troll but the arguments Nick presents are so ridiculously contorted I can’t resist slamming this home, so since we are arguing constitution fundamentals- I’ll leave this here. Nick you can claim I don’t know what I’m talking about, that’s fine. The problem is, I didn’t invent the constitution. These guys did-

    In The Federalist No. 58, James Madison described the centrality of the power of the purse’s role in the growth of representative government and its particular importance in the Constitution’s governmental structure:

    “The House of Representatives cannot only refuse, but they alone can propose the supplies requisite for the support of the government. They, in a word, hold the purse—that powerful instrument by which we behold, in the history of the British Constitution, an infant and humble representation of the people gradually enlarging the sphere of its activity and importance, and finally reducing, as far as it seems to have wished, all the overgrown prerogatives of the other branches of government. This power over the purse may, in fact, be regarded as the most complete and effectual weapon with which any constitution can arm the immediate representatives of the people, for obtaining a redress of every grievance, and for carrying into effect every just and salutary measure.”

    Plenty more supporting the argument here, essentially the house was meant from the get go to have independent authority from the get go over the treasury in order to reign in the power of the executive. This power of the purse was also meant as the house’s “means of protection”, the old checks and balances concept…

    http://www.heritage.org/constitution/#!/articles/1/essays/67/appropriations-clause

    • I actually was coming on to write that you were right, in large part, because we were talking past each other. Given that the ACA is mandatory spending (for the most part), defunding it is a repeal in a way that underfunding NCLB or Superfund is not. That’s our major distinction, which neither one of us was picking up on. I was wrong to call you a troll, though we do disagree on this even when we understand each other’s point.

      You are right that Congress passes a law that requires appropriations, and then chooses not to appropriate funds for it, fairly regularly. But when that spending for the bill is mandatory (like Social Security and Medicare), then Congress has already essentially appropriated the funds; passing a budget that says you can’t use any of those funds is very different than not appropriating the funds in the first place. That’s why Obamacare continues and why the GOP demands are so weird; they’re trying to defund a program that’s already funded.

      Now, I know you’re going to say that’s a distinction without a difference, but when we really get down to it, Sowell’s point is that this isn’t a big deal because (a) the debt ceiling has been used many times for legislative purposes and (b) legislation by appropriation is common. He’s right about (a), sort-of right about (b), but the combination isn’t necessarily logical. This argument should be about the debt ceiling context, not general funding, but my first comment was stupidly not limited to that.

      As for the Federalist Papers, it’s hard to tell without context, but it appears there that Madison is talking about taxing authority, not spending authority, which makes sense as he’s only talking about the House. “[T]hey alone can propose the supplies requisite for the support of the government. It may be that he also meant spending power, or that they considered section 7 to be a bigger deal than section 8, or who knows what. I don’t think it clearly says what you think it says. In fact, that whole heritage page you link to is talking about section 8, which isn’t limited to the House but rather the Congress. But I’m not sure what your point is and after earlier I don’t want to start arguing in circles again.

  9. Scott, spending (appropriation) bills originate in the house. Always. As far as forcing will goes, there’s plenty of that going around from all sides. So yes, they do have that power. If they don’t approve of the spending, it gets left out of the bill. It was designed that way intentionally in the constitution as a means of protection for the house. Your right, the president and senate may not approve, but conversely they can not force the house to put something in a spending bill they don’t want to, and that where we get to loggerheads we are at now.

  10. Nick- You must have been reading to fast or something. At the top of the article on heritage.org

    “The Appropriations Clause is the cornerstone of Congress’s “power of the purse.” It assigns to Congress the role of final arbiter of the use of public funds. The source of Congress’s power to spend derives from Article I, Section 8, Clause 1. The Appropriations Clause provides Congress with a mechanism to control or to limit spending by the federal government.”

    It goes on to state-

    “The Appropriations Clause first appeared at the Convention as part of a proposed division of authority between the House and the Senate. A part of that proposal declared that all bills raising or appropriating money—”money bills”—were to originate in the House, and were not subject to alteration or amendment in the Senate. Further, no money could be drawn from the “public Treasury, but in pursuance of appropriations to be originated in the House of Representatives.”

    So they are clearly talking about spending, not taxing. So, to imply that Madison “might” have been talking about taxing is nonsensical at best. Further, it’s well known that the phrase “power of the purse” refers to spending bills. Which always originate in the house specifically due to the approprations clause discussed in the referenced essay.

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