Going for Big Watch on Big Budgets

By Ralph Nader
March 31, 2022

What if $10 billion were raised over ten years for civic action to transform Congress and make it do what it should be doing for the people (See: Think Big to Overcome Losing Big to Corporatism 1/7/22)? In a more recent column, Facilitating Civic and Political Energies for the Common Good 2/2/22, I started a series of columns to outline how $1 billion per year could be spent lobbying Congress for a people’s agenda.

First $100 million per year would be used to get through Congress long-overdue legislation such as full Medicare for All, with emphasis on prevention of ailments and price gouging, a living wage, reducing corporate abuses, etc. The second $100 million would be devoted to creating facilities to make it easy for people to band together in their various roles (e.g., workers, consumers, patients, savers) so they could counter corporate bosses who band together their investors and many lobbying trade groups.

The third article dealt with the $100 million per year to make Congress change the disgracefully unfair, wasteful, and inefficient tax laws (See: Going for Tax Reform Big Time 3/11/2022).

Now I propose the fourth $100 million per year to be used to gain control of the enormous, amorphous federal budget. Shining sunlight on congressional budget shenanigans is the first step in making it reflect public priorities and needs instead of corporate greed.

Start with the first “twistification” (Jefferson’s word) of Article I, Section7, Clause 1, of the Constitution, which states, “All Bills for raising Revenue shall originate in the House of Representatives; …” Congress has rendered this a formality.

The reality is that budgets originate from the President’s Office of Management and Budget (OMB), after it receives the budgets prepared by federal departments and agencies.

Until the 1920s Congress directly received these various budgets, and the congressional committees used to go through a double check – a sequence of first authorizing expenditures, then appropriating the monies. For the most part, unlike earlier decades, the authorization process that started this double check is usually skipped. Today appropriations hearings are little more than perfunctory – with few exceptions.

In the 1950s and 1960s, the House and Senate Appropriations Committees would go through the respective budgets line by line. No more. Now the White House sends Congress a multi-thousand-page annual budget, corrupted by corporate lobbyists. Then the House Speaker and Senate Majority Leader, after great delays and backroom deals, signal their agreements and ram the budget through the legislative process. During the delays, Democrats and Republicans pass continuing resolutions (CRs) to fund the government.

It has gotten so bad that since 1997, the Pentagon asks for a ton of money under the name of an “Overseas Contingency Operations Transfer Fund” – essentially a slush fund for wars in general. Year after year, starting at the time of the Afghanistan and Iraq invasions (2001-2003), requests for $50 billion or more at a time would just go to Congress, unexamined, and be whooped through, producing a blank check for the Defense Department.

President Obama launched a war against Libya taking unappropriated money from these dark pots of Pentagon cash. President Trump defiantly also spent money illegally on the Wall and for other purposes.

At every juncture, one powerful group knows what’s going on. Commercial corporate lawyers and other influence peddlers operate inside the budget process and push for their demands of special budget favors and secretly insert loophole legislative language. The people back home are often clueless about this subterfuge and become cynical because they feel powerless about what is being done with their money.

More and more of these huge expenditures are not being paid for by tax revenues. They are being added to burgeoning deficits on our children and grandchildren. This form of “child abuse” lets billionaires pay only an average of 8 percent in federal taxes and giant profitable companies pay less or no federal income taxes at all. That is one reason the super-rich liked Trump.

With a $5.3 trillion federal budget, it is important to separate the so-called “discretionary” operating budget – to run the government – from the “non-discretionary” social insurance budget, for programs such as Social Security and Medicare.

It is the operating budgets which are sloshing around billions of dollars without public review, without strict standards and proper oversight by Congress – except for the oft-ignored reports of the congressional Government Accountability Office (GAO). Increasingly, the public budget is under the allocative powers of federal bureaucrats who are besieged by corporate lobbyists.

In 1990 Congress made an attempt to require annual auditable budgets from each government department. Only the biggest operating budget by far – that of the Pentagon – has violated this requirement every year, despite promises by U.S. Secretaries of Defense to comply. It has not sent an auditable budget because no one knows where all the DOD money goes. Budget watchdogs, however, do know that much of the DOD budget is spread all over the world with warehouses of uninventoried supplies, cargo planes of $100 bills to grease or bribe influentials, and to pay for staggering overcharges by the insatiable military munitions manufacturers and other contractors.

In the midst of all these Niagaras of budgeted money, there are very few citizen groups investigating, monitoring and pressing Congress to represent the public interest. The closest are the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, which is mostly an excellent think tank critically analyzing budget allocations for domestic social service programs and the Project on Government Oversight (POGO), a nonprofit organization that investigates and exposes government waste.

One Hundred Million dollars a year could unleash legions of lawyers, accountants and other knowledgeable people, who worked inside government, to challenge the status quo and the excesses of the executive branch agencies. The low-hanging fruit is truly everywhere and available for plucking. The structural budget process failures would require broad overhaul legislation to wake up Congress and hold its members electorally accountable.

People back home aren’t receiving the outrageous facts. Remember how shaken the Pentagon was when it was caught paying $435 for a simple claw hammer that its corporate vendor brazenly described as a “uni-directional impact generator.” Public outrage fueled by exposes reaching the citizenry could be organized to turn around members of Congress.

Unfortunately, spurts of indignation can only be converted into a grassroots movement by (polls show) left/right alliances of Americans joining together against combinations of unfettered waste, greed and power, which suck away huge revenues that could be used to rebuild America. With organizers in each of the 435 Congressional Districts assembling small (say 500 people in each District) who are informed and determined real change will come about.

From all angles, the obscured federal budget is broken, pillaged and suffused with grotesque, often criminal payments. Taking on such indefensible violations of the public trust by skilled civic action would fill the near vacuum existing today. There is not one fulltime individual citizen pressing for an auditable Pentagon budget, as required by law. Against such widespread inaction, there is nowhere to go but up!

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