Sen. Lee: Congress Chooses Not to Exercise Its Own ‘Power of the Purse’

By Barbara Hollingsworth | February 5, 2014 | 1:40pm EST


Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) questioning Attorney General Eric Holder on executive orders at a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on Jan. 29, 2014. (AP photo)

( – Although Congress still has the “power of the purse,” it chooses not to withhold funding whenever President Obama tries to do an end-run around it by issuing executive orders because members of both parties are content with passing all-or-nothing spending bills that take this constitutional option off the table, says Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah). asked Lee why Congress has not used its constitutional authority to rein-in such presidential overreach.

“Yeah, Congress has not done that, and it’s a source of great frustration to me," the Utah Republican replied. "A lot of it has to do with the fact that Congress has gotten into this very pernicious pattern in which it considers spending legislation on an all-or-nothing basis.

“We get up right to the end of a particular funding period - and I sometimes call this ‘government by cliff’ – we run up against a deadline and then Congress brings forward either a continuing resolution or an omnibus spending measure, and members of Congress receive the text of the spending bill or the continuing resolution, you know, just hours or at most a couple of days before they have to vote on it,” he explained.

“And they’re told, you either vote to fund everything in this bill or vote to fund nothing in this bill. Keep government funded entirely or bring about a government shutdown.

“Now, I think this kind of spending bill is dangerous. I think this is what’s contributing substantially to our trillion-dollar deficits and to our $17 trillion debt is that members of Congress, when presented with that option, end up just, you know, just voting to fund everything,” he added.

“But this is not how Congress is supposed to work. Members of Congress are supposed to have many options before them, and they’re supposed to have an open debate and discussion when they consider legislation.

“And it’s a real injustice to the American people that too many members of Congress in both houses and in both political parties, quite frankly, are content with this kind of practice. It’s got to stop,” Lee told

“But this is what prevents Congress from standing up for its own institutional prerogatives. If we didn’t operate this way, I think there would be a much greater chance that Congress would withhold funding for the president to implement many of these executive orders.”

Referring to the July 2, 2013 Treasury Department announcement in which the Obama administration unilaterally delayed implementation of the Affordable Care Act’s employer mandate without congressional approval, Lee added: “That’s one of the many reasons I proposed that Congress withhold funding from Obamacare in light of the fact that the president was unwilling to implement the law as it was written.”

At a January 29th hearing of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Lee told Attorney General Eric Holder that he “forcefully disagreed” with Holder’s contention that President Obama’s use of executive orders is no different from that of his predecessors in the White House.

“Now it’s true that other presidents have issued executive orders. It’s true that other presidents in recent decades have issued perhaps about the same number of executive orders. But not all executive orders are alike,” Lee told

“I was not disputing the attorney general’s claim with regard to the number of executive orders issued. What I was disputing was his suggestion that there is nothing different that this president has done relative to the use of executive orders. And what I mean by that is this president has repeatedly made use of executive orders to change statute, to change law, to change legislation enacted by Congress.” asked Lee if he was also concerned about the increasing number of government regulations unilaterally imposed by executive branch agencies that have the force of law, including the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) proposed ozone regulations, which will cost the U.S. economy an estimated $90 billion annually if adopted.

“Yes, very much so,” he replied. “Another problem that we have in Congress is that Congress has been content to delegate so much of its lawmaking power to executive branch agencies like the EPA….But it’s members of Congress, and not bureaucrats at the EPA, that are elected by the people.

“It’s not necessarily that members are the most wise, or make the best law. It’s that they can be fired by the voters if they make bad laws,” Lee noted. “When we delegate this much power to executive branch bureaucrats, we completely insulate our lawmaking process from political accountability, and that’s wrong.”

He added that the “sheer volume of regulations that is being produced is staggering.”

“I’ve got a bookcase in my office that shows 80,000 pages of new regulations published last year in the 2013 Federal Register,” Lee added. “During the same time period, Congress passed just 800 pages of law. We’ve got 100 times more law being put out by executive branch agencies than by Congress. And that’s a problem.”

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