GAO Report reveals effects of signing statements

The Government Accountability Office has shown that the Executive Branch is ignoring certain provisions of laws passed by Congress. Though it seems strange until you remember that the ‘A’ in GAO was once ‘Accounting,’ the GAO focused only on appropriations acts from the fiscal year 2006… ignoring the much juicier signing statements regarding torture, wiretapping and surveillance, or propaganda. The results were fairly mild: in a number of instances, the GAO found agencies like FEMA, US Customs and Border Protection, and the Pentagon were not completely compliant to the provisions of their appropriations bills. In this, we see the administrative state, under the nominal management of the President, continuing to develop undemocratically.

The White House argues that the President’s management of his employees allows him to excuse them from such demands. I can certainly understand the sentiment when it comes to operational restrictions like the requirement that the Border Patrol ‘relocate its checkpoints around Tucson every seven days to improve efforts to combat illegal immigration.’ This strikes me as an unusual level of detail for the legislature to slip into an appropriations bill… but it’s still law. A government employee shouldn’t ignore these kinds of regulations when his very powers come from the same branch of government telling him how to use them. This, of course, is a highly controversial view of the relationship between the administrative state and the legislature, which is not supported by case law. But I think it’s right, nonetheless.

Generally, these agencies are withholding information demanded by Congress in exchange for their budgets. These transgressions are even more troubling, though easier to excuse because it seems yawn-worthy that some report wasn’t made or wasn’t detailed enough. The Pentagon can effectively duck requirements that it break out the costs of the global war on terror in its budgetary process because our nation’s safety depends on the work they do; we’re not likely to slash their funding in response. Yet the letter of the law and the spirit of the law are pretty clearly in sync here: if Congress appropriates it, they should be told how it was spent. Without that kind of informational accountability, there’s absolutely no connection between the democratic process and the functioning of government. Given this result, we can say in truth that we have no democratic control of our military’s spending.

Yet it is politics, not statutory law or some fancy theory of the unified executive, that prevents the legislature from standing up to the military on this issue. The unpopularity of taking on war-time profiteering is due to the fact that the money wasted, no matter how egregiously, still pales in comparison to the lives lost. What’s a few billion here or there when our soldiers are in danger? The unspoken assumption is that the absurdly unworkable weapons-systems upon which the money is wasted will save our men and women in uniform, when in fact they simply need better body and vehicle armor, cheap in comparison to military R & D, but not nearly as lucrative.

The GAO’s conclusions were typically modest and relatively neutral, given the political climate. But the implications are startling: our democratically-elected representatives are in many cases powerless to steer the federal government. The Presidency looks more and more like the elected king proffered by Alexander Hamilton but rejected by the Constitutional Congress. Well why not? It’s already hereditary.

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