Chair McCollum Statement at Hearing on The Power of the Purse: A Review of Agency Spending Restrictions During a Shutdown

February 6, 2019
Press Release

Congresswoman Betty McCollum (D-MN-04), the Chair of the Interior-Environment Appropriations Subcomittee, delivered the following remarks at the Subcomittee's hearing on "The Power of the Purse: A Review of Agency Spending Restrictions During a Shutdown":

Good morning.  I’d like to welcome everyone to this first hearing of the Interior, Environment and Related Agencies Subcommittee for the 116th Congress. 

I’m particularly pleased to be joined by our new Ranking Member, Congressman David Joyce, of Ohio, and our new vice-chair, Congresswoman Chellie Pingree, of Maine. I’d also like to welcome our new Subcommittee Members this year: Congressman José Serrano, of New York; Congressman Mike Quigley, of Illinois; Congresswoman Bonnie Watson Coleman, of New Jersey; and Congresswoman Brenda Lawrence, of Michigan. And of course, welcome back to Mr. Kilmer and our other returning members.

As we begin our work for the year, I think it’s important that we do not just jump right in and focus on a particular agency or a particular program, but instead that we start by reviewing our most fundamental responsibility, which is exercising Congress’ power of the purse. 

The Constitution puts that power in the House and the Senate, and as Members of the Appropriations Committee, we are charged with taking the lead in safeguarding that authority for all our colleagues. Ironically, the recent government shutdown has caused us to review the laws governing the use of taxpayer dollars and to reexamine what’s permissible and what’s not. 

We have raised serious questions with the Administration concerning the authority of the executive branch to continue to operate the various agencies and programs in the absence of appropriations, or to comingle appropriations between accounts. Unfortunately, we have not gotten adequate answers.

The starkest example of questionable behavior was Acting Secretary Bernhardt’s decision to direct the National Park Service to use its Federal Lands Recreation Enhancement Act fee revenues in place of the funding this subcommittee appropriates for operational activities. 

I have serious concerns about that decision. Those recreation fees are for capital improvement projects to enhance the visitor experience. They are not a slush fund for the Administration to use when it wants to circumvent Congress’s power of the purse.

So today, I hope that we can begin to build a shared understanding of the underlying legal framework that surrounds our constitutional authority. For example, the Antideficiency Act, which dates back to the 1880s, is one of the primary laws used to apply Congress’ constitutional authority over public funds. That law prohibits the executive branch from spending federal tax dollars unless those dollars have been expressly appropriated by Congress. 

In addition, the so-called “Purpose Statute,” dating from 1809, says that money can only be used for the specific purpose authorized by Congress. And finally, there are strict rules which require that if an appropriation is made for a particular program, then it is improper to use another appropriation to operate that program.

To help us sort through all these statutes and rules, and to better understand how funding lapses have been handled in the past, we will hear from three expert witnesses this morning.

First, we’ll hear from Ms. Julie Matta. Ms. Matta is the Managing Associate General Counsel with the Government Accountability Office (GAO). She is one of GAO’s leading experts on the Antideficiency Act and the various legal decisions concerning the Act. While Ms. Matta is not in a position this morning to give us an official GAO opinion on any specific agency action that occurred during the most recent shutdown, she will be able to help us understand how these statutes have been interpreted in the past, and the types of activities that are authorized and prohibited.

On our second panel, we’ll hear from Mr. Sam Berger and Mr. Phil Francis.

Mr. Berger is currently a senior adviser at the Center for American Progress. Between 2010 and 2015, Mr. Berger worked at the Office of Management and Budget as a senior counselor and policy advisor. He was involved in a variety of legal issues, including sequestration and executive orders. Most relevant for us today is Mr. Berger’s involvement in planning for the 2013 government shutdown. He will to speak to how the decision-making process played out during that event, particularly from the perspective of the executive branch.

Joining Mr. Berger is Mr. Phil Francis. Mr. Francis is currently the Chair of the Coalition to Protect America’s National Parks, which is the voice of retired National Park Service officials. During his 40 year career, Mr. Francis served in numerous senior positions of authority, including assignments at Yosemite National Park, the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the Blue Ridge Parkway, Shenandoah National Park, and several regional offices. Mr. Francis is also a recipient of the Interior Department’s Superior Service Award. As an experienced on-the-ground manager, we look forward to hearing Mr. Francis’ views on how best to operate and protect our national parks during a lapse in appropriations.

In addition to these witnesses, I would like to ask for unanimous consent to submit testimony for the record from John Garder of the National Parks Conservation Association. We have provided a copy of this testimony to each of you at your seats. Hearing no objection the testimony is submitted.

Before I turn to our Ranking Member, Mr. Joyce, for his opening remarks, I’d like to take a moment to cover the hearing logistics. Ms. Matta will give her testimony and then we will conduct two rounds of questions and answers. After Panel 1 questions are complete, Ms. Matta will be excused, and we will call up our second panel for their testimony. Each member will have 5 minutes for each round of questions.

And with that, I’d like to turn to my friend, Mr. Joyce, for his remarks.

116th Congress