As Trump Seizes Wall Money, Congress’s Spending Power Weakens

WASHINGTON — When the Pentagon announced this month that it would divert billions more dollars in military funding to the construction of President Trump’s border wall, bipartisan outrage ricocheted across Capitol Hill.

Republicans and Democrats alike issued fiery statements in defense of both their congressional districts, some of which stand to lose valuable work making military equipment, and their constitutionally enshrined power of the purse. But the howls of protest are unlikely to amount to much in a Congress where lawmakers — many of whom once prized their spending prerogatives almost above all else — acknowledge their power to steer federal dollars has been severely eroded.

The dysfunction has taken hold in large part because of decisions that members of Congress themselves have made. But it has become particularly pronounced under Mr. Trump, who has moved aggressively to divert government money when it suits his agenda.

“Congress’s appropriation power, which is pretty much the last unchallenged power that Congress has, has very significantly eroded,” said Sean Q. Kelly, a professor of political science at California State University Channel Islands.

The root of the problem predates Mr. Trump. For years, Congress has jammed through huge omnibus spending bills that set funding for an entire fiscal year in the final days of legislative sessions. Lawmakers have also passed a patchwork of short-term spending bills to keep the government from shutting down, which has happened three times during the Trump administration. And while presidents have always had the power to transfer and reallocate funds, Mr. Trump has made far wider use of that authority to subvert the will of lawmakers.

The administration is expected to announce another diversion of funds to help pay for construction of a wall on the southern border, Mr. Trump’s signature campaign promise, in the coming months. The president declared a national emergency last year to allow him to use money not appropriated for the wall to build it.

And while the Senate acquitted Mr. Trump this month of impeachment charges stemming from his decision to withhold military funding from Ukraine, the Government Accountability Office, a nonpartisan federal watchdog, found that Mr. Trump’s actions violated the Impoundment Control Act, which limits a president’s ability to refuse to spend money allocated by Congress.

Several lawmakers, including some who are still deeply involved in crafting the dozen must-pass spending bills each year, acknowledge that the annual fiscal process no longer works as it once did. A large factor, several say, is the demise of earmarks, the power to steer money to lawmakers’ pet projects in order to persuade them to take tough votes. Long scorned as a tool of corruption, Congress ultimately banned the practice after a series of scandals that culminated in the imprisonment of the lobbyist Jack Abramoff.

“When earmarks were around, they gave members a reason to pay attention to appropriations — they always knew they had some skin in the game,” said Mr. Kelly, who co-wrote a book about earmarks and their benefit to democracy. “By being penny-wise, we’ve sort of been pound-foolish.”

Some lawmakers in both parties have quietly begun discussing reviving earmarks in a bid to help grease the gears of the spending process. Representative Nita M. Lowey, Democrat of New York and chairwoman of the House Appropriations Committee, embarked on a listening tour among her colleagues about rebranding earmarks as “community project funding” and implementing more guardrails to avoid abuse. Mr. Trump has also suggested bringing the practice back in some form.

“Members of Congress have the best judgment about what’s needed for their districts,” Ms. Lowey said in an interview in which she described how the administration now wields far more discretion in doling out funds for projects. “Local projects and spending bills also give members a sense of ownership of federal funding.”

But the idea has been shelved for the time being. House Democratic leaders hope to pass all 12 spending bills by the end of June, and any effort to revive earmarks was seen as too complex and politically fraught to pursue in such a short time frame and in an election year.

“Clearly, there’s a sentiment in the institution that we surrender too much power,” said Representative Tom Cole, Republican of Oklahoma and a member of the Appropriations Committee, who supports the idea of bringing back the practice in some form. “How you get that power back without undercutting the current chief executive, and how you have that discussion in a way that it doesn’t partisan-ize it and sends everybody to their corners, is really going to be very tricky.”

Fiscal conservatives — particularly Republicans who ran for Congress as budget hawks bent on lowering the debt and reducing government spending — are reluctant to undercut that message now by embracing earmarks. Mick Mulvaney, the acting White House chief of staff who railed against spending during his years as a South Carolina congressman, acknowledged in a recent private question-and-answer session that Republicans are less interested in deficit reduction now that a member of their party is in the White House.

A Democratic aide, insisting on anonymity to describe internal discussions, said that party leaders planned to revisit the discussion of earmarks next year, given the near-unanimous support for it among their members in Congress. Other aides and lawmakers pointed to the Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress, a bipartisan committee formed to offer suggestions on how to improve and update the legislative branch, as a possible avenue to explore more substantial reforms to the system.

In the meantime, the administration has taken advantage of the natural murkiness that comes with funding programs and policy — and encountered little resistance from lawmakers.

“Congress has been more and more deferential to the president when they’re of the same party,” said Joshua C. Huder, a senior fellow at Georgetown University’s Government Affairs Institute. “But on the other hand, we haven’t seen a president deviate from appropriations to such a degree.”

While the Government Accountability Office found that Mr. Trump’s decision to withhold $391 million in security assistance for Ukraine violated the law, there is no action or penalty that can be taken as a result.

“These parchment barriers are only as effective so far as when people in power hold themselves to the law,” said James P. Pfiffner, a professor at George Mason University who wrote a book about the impoundment act. “If the person with the most power says, ‘I’m not going to play by the rules of the game,’ the other people may have the authority, but not the power to enforce the law.”

This month, when Russell T. Vought, the acting head of the White House’s Office of Management and Budget, appeared before the House Budget Committee for the first time since defying congressional subpoenas in the impeachment inquiry, only one lawmaker — Representative John Yarmuth, Democrat of Kentucky and the committee’s chairman — even asked about the agency’s obligation to implement congressional spending priorities.

“We believe that we need to abide by the appropriation that you pass, by Congress,” Mr. Vought said. “We look at the appropriations law and we look at the authorization law. We figure out what our flexibility is within that framework.”

Mr. Yarmuth and other top Democrats have said that they plan to pursue legislation that would toughen the Impoundment Control Act, and Senate Democrats have introduced legislation to curb the reach of the national emergency power. But neither measure is likely to survive in the Republican-controlled Senate.

Wendy J. Schiller, a professor of political science at Brown University, called it a “story of unintended consequences” that is unlikely to be immediately reversed by future administrations.

“Trump inherited a presidency that was already getting much more powerful than Congress,” Ms. Schiller said. “I don’t think the next president is going to want to relinquish that power. Why would he or she?”