OPINION: ‘Fiscal Cliff’ Talks Gut Checks and Balances

I have kind of an odd Christmas Wish this year. Maybe it was inspired by my recent viewing of “Lincoln.” Anyways…

In both the federal and the Maryland Constitutions,  a great deal of power is given to the legislature. The Constitution of the United States gives Congress the power to make laws, tax, spend and declare war. Specifically, Article 2, Section 8 reads:

The Congress shall have Power To lay and collect Taxes, Duties, Imposts and Excises, to pay the Debts and provide for the common Defence and general Welfare of the United States; but all Duties, Imposts and Excises shall be uniform throughout the United States.

But what neither the members of the U.S. Congress nor the legislators elected to the Maryland General Assembly seem to have noticed in the past few years is that the elected members have ceded power to the leadership to arbitrate spending and taxation. It is going on right now with the so-called “Fiscal Cliff” negotiations between President Barrack Obama (D) and Speaker John Boehner (R).

Similar negotiations have taken place in recent years between Busch, Gov. Martin O’Malley and State Sen Mike Miller (D) when the Maryland General Assembly didn’t pass a spending plan in time. Anybody recall the “Doomsday Budget” from earlier this year?

My beef with these negotiations is, first, that it concentrates a great deal of power in a handful of elected officials and their unelected advisers. Second, it robs citizens of the opportunity to weigh in on spending and taxation policies. Third, it is often done behind closed doors.

The founders spelled out the exact procedures in the Constitution, giving that power to a cumbersome, slow-moving, deliberative body rather than the chief executive and a few other negotiators.

Ways and Means and Appropriations

In the U.S. Congress, there are about 200 committees and subcommittees. One of those committees handles taxation [Ways and Means] and another handles spending [Appropriations]. These two committees are tasked with writing the tax laws and moving the 13 spending bills out of committee and onto the House Floor. Once the bill passes the House, it is moved to the Senate, then eventually to the president’s desk. The process is the same in Maryland’s General Assembly, except there are only two bills: operating and capital expenditures.

The 13 U.S. federal government spending bills are listed at the bottom of this story.

The Congressmen and Congresswomen who sit on these committees hold hearings where tax policies and spending bills are debated and decided. Sometimes the people testifying are lobbyists and corporate interests, but it is also the place where individual citizens can and do have input.

Community leaders, often volunteers, come to testify. Groups like the National Parent Teacher Association (PTA), the Sierra Club, the Red Cross, the American Cancer Society and AARP frequently go to Capitol Hill to talk directly to Members about what federal programs are working, what programs aren’t working and where funding should be directed. Sometimes when a volunteer/citizen meets with a member of Congress or testifies before a subcommittee, or committee, it is only after years of research or grassroots experience. These people can come from the smallest town in America or the biggest city.

Remember John Walsh from America’s Most Wanted TV Show? He was a regular dad going about his business until his son Adam was kidnapped. Walsh’s son was never found, but he became a professional advocate. He went to state legislators around the country lobbying for funding for victims rights. He eventually went to Washington to tell his story.

Or Michael J. Fox. The “Back to the Future” actor became a fixture on Capitol Hill after he was diagnosed with Parkinsons Disease, advocating for medical research funding.

Or our very own Edgewater mom, Nina Marcellino, who went to Annapolis and then to Washington to lobby legislators for, not funding, but a health coding change in state and federal documents. She didn’t want the “R” word to be used on health forms for her daughter, who was born with Downs Syndrome. Marcellino and her other children testified to change the designation to “intellectual disability.”

Anyway, after they hear testimony, the appropriators have a tough task. They have to sort it all out. But, they at least have heard directly from the people.

It is the basic component of how representational democracy should work. It’s a plan the Founders brilliantly devised. Why don’t we use it?

When our nation’s annual spending plan comes down to a couple guys hashing it out behind closed doors, they can’t possibly know about the powerful testimony of citizens. They can’t possibly know how best to rework Medicare or Social Security or change the number of deductions a person can take when they itemize their taxes.

For the life of me, I can’t figure out why the Members on those taxing and spending committees don’t revolt. Are those members talking directly to U.S. Speaker John Boehner (R)? Do the appropriators get an opportunity to relay the moving stories to Maryland Speaker Mike Busch (D)?

I can’t know. In Washington, those Fiscal Cliff talks are being held in secret.

Guess what: Committee hearings aren’t secret (except for some classified information).

Sunshine.

The process needs “Sunshine,” which is what Maryland’s 1977 Open Meetings Act was all about. No secrets.

Can we get back to the place where the legislators work the bills, meet with citizens and have a deadline for each of their spending bills? Can’t we go back to when it was all in the open and transparent—the way they used to do back in… 1997. [According to the Congressional Research Service (via ABC-TV News' The Note), the U.S. Congress and the president have agreed to budgets only three times in the past 26 years: in 1989, 1995 and 1997].

Starting with the new Congress and Maryland General Assembly meeting in January, lets go back to the not-t00-distant future and do it like it is supposed to be done.

That’s my Christmas Wish.

Here are the 13 Spending Bills in the U.S. Congress:

079 Capitol Hill United States Congress 1993

Congress needs to do what the founders told them to do.

  1. US Department of Agriculture, rural development, Food and Drug Administration (FDA)
  2. US Departments of Commerce, Justice, State, the federal Judiciary
  3. US Department of Defense (The Pentagon/Military)
  4. Operations of the government of the District of Columbia
  5. Energy and water resources development
  6. Foreign operations, export financing, and related programs
  7. Homeland Security
  8. US Department of the Interior and related agencies (Indian Affairs, National Parks, Fish and Wildlife)
  9. US Departments of Labor, Health and Human Services, Education
  10. Funding for the Legislative Branch of government (Congressional spending for staff, upkeep of the Capitol)
  11. Military construction, family housing, and base realignment and closure
  12. US Department of Transportation, Treasury, the US Postal Service, the Executive Office of the President, and other Independent Agencies
  13. US Departments of Veterans Affairs and Housing and Urban Development, and for sundry independent agencies, boards, commissions, corporations, and offices
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About Mitchelle Stephenson

I've gotta tell Mitchelle! Send your South County news tips, brag on your fab volunteers, talk traffic, police and fire or just say "howdy" to Mitchelle Stephenson, co-founding editor of the South River Source. Mitchelle@SouthRiverSource.com or reach me in person on mobile: 410-353-4706.

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