Think Congress can't stop President Obama's unilateral executive action on immigration? It can.
All money spent by the federal government is under the ultimate control of Congress. If they choose, lawmakers can issue exquisitely detailed instructions on how federal dollars are spent. For proof, look no further than the 1,695-page spending bill passed by Congress over the weekend.
A particular phrase, "none of the funds," appears in the bill more than 450 times. In each case, Congress used those words to dictate how money can and cannot be spent.
The first two times the phrase appears in the bill concern a $1.2 billion appropriation for salaries and expenses at the Farm Service Agency, part of the Agriculture Department. "None of the funds available to the Farm Service Agency shall be used to close Farm Service Agency county offices," the bill says. In addition, "none of the funds available to the Farm Service Agency shall be used to permanently relocate county-based employees that would result in an office with two or fewer employees without prior notification and approval of the Committee on Appropriations."
That's pretty specific. The Agriculture Department can't close Farm Service Agencies or reorganize them, if the result is an office with fewer than three employees, unless specifically approved by Congress. That's using the power of the purse to dictate precisely what a government agency can do.
That level of detail continues throughout the bill. For example, the Department of Health and Human Services and many other federal agencies create video news releases to publicize their various programs. Congress insists that those be properly labeled, and it uses a "none of the funds" clause to do so. From page 82 of the funding bill:
None of the funds provided in this Act may be used by an executive branch agency to produce any prepackaged news story intended for broadcast or distribution in the United States unless the story includes a clear notification within the text or audio of the prepackaged news story that the prepackaged news story was prepared or funded by that executive branch agency.
Think that's detailed? On the very next page, the bill stipulates that "none of the funds made available by this Act may be used to pay the salaries and expenses of personnel who provide nonrecourse marketing assistance loans for mohair under section 1201 of the Agricultural Act of 2014."
And those are just examples from the first part of the giant omnibus bill. A later section, concerning the Bureau of Prisons, requires that "none of the funds appropriated by this Act may be used by federal prisons to purchase cable television services, or to rent or purchase audiovisual or electronic media or equipment used primarily for recreational purposes."
A section on the Justice Department stipulates that "none of the funds made available in this Act may be used to purchase first class or premium airline travel …"
Another passage concerns a single person, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the mastermind of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. "None of the funds appropriated or otherwise made available in this or any other Act may be used to transfer, release, or assist in the transfer or release to or within the United States, its territories, or possessions Khalid Sheikh Mohammed …" The bill goes on to include other Guantanamo Bay inmates under that provision.
The phrase "in this or any other Act" is about as definitive as can be. It's why Guantanamo Bay remains open when the president and top leadership of the executive branch want to close it.
And how about this, from the Pentagon appropriation: "None of the funds in this Act may be available for purchase by the Department of Defense (and its departments and agencies) of welded shipboard anchor and mooring chain 4 inches in diameter and under unless the anchor and mooring chain are manufactured in the United States from components which are substantially manufactured in the United States." The bill goes on to define "manufactured" to include "cutting, heat treating, quality control, testing of chain and welding."
Those are just a few examples of Congress using its power of the purse to tell the executive branch precisely what it may and may not do. There are many, many, many more — just in the new bill.
And that's nothing new; this sort of restriction, and many of the specific ones in the new spending bill, have been in appropriations measures for years and years.
Under Obama's immigration order, federal offices will process the cases of illegal immigrants in a variety of ways, awarding them work permits, assigning Social Security numbers, and distributing federal transfer payments. Given the routine restrictions of all sorts of federal actions in the new spending bill, and the thousands of such restrictions in similar bills over the years, does anyone believe Congress cannot limit what the president does on immigration?
Yes, lawmakers have to be united to act. But if they choose, they can stop Obama cold.