The perpetual motion machine

Remember high school civics class? Congress has to approve federal expenditures, we were told. Presidents are barred by the Constitution from declaring war. Our system of government prevents slim majorities in Congress from dictating to minorities, small or large. Powerful aristocracies are prohibited. And we, the people, have a say in how we are governed.

Forget it. None of it is true.

During the past week or so, we’ve heard a lot about “government shutdown” and “defunding Obamacare.” It’s impossible for either to happen.

Some conservatives in Congress have been attempting to withhold funding for the Affordable Care Act, known as Obamacare, in order to keep it from going into effect. Liberals, including President Barack Obama, have said they would not approve a spending bill with that provision, leading to a “government shutdown.”

But government never really shuts down. Under such a scenario, some operations, such as national parks, indeed would be suspended. But others, including the military, Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, would continue.

That is because much of government is funded by “mandatory appropriation” rules. Whether Congress approves or not, the money keeps flowing.

Obamacare is included, an official of the Department of Health and Human Services said this week. “Many of the core parts of the health care law … wouldn’t be affected” by congressional action to “defund” the program, he added.

“We have put much of the government on cruise control,” Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., said of the “mandatory appropriations” system.

Increasingly, presidents have been permitted to set the speed on that cruise control. The War Powers Act allows them to, in effect, declare war for up to 90 days without congressional approval. Various acts of Congress down through the years have granted incredible power to executive-branch agencies, who are directed by the White House. The Environmental Protection Agency, for example, can shut down entire industries.

Members of the Federal Reserve Board of Governors are appointed by the president and confirmed by the Senate. Once in power, they have – and use – sweeping authority over matters such as how much interest you pay on loans and how much your dollar will buy.

But let’s get back to whether Congress has to approve spending for it to happen. It has been years since a formal budget document was enacted. During that time, “mandatory appropriations,” along with action such as “continuing resolutions,” has kept the money flowing. Liberals in the Senate did approve a budget earlier this year – but the House of Representatives rejected it because it included a $1 billion tax increase.

It is that “continuing resolution” scheme that has allowed presidents such as Obama to claim conservatives, by attempting to curb federal spending, are going to “shut down the government.”

During the past 30 years, there have been multiple “shutdowns.” There were three, lasting a total of 28 days, in 1977 alone. In 1995, the “shutdown” lasted three full weeks. The world did not end.

Back to presidents setting the speed on “cruise control.” During the past several years, millions of American families have had to cut spending because of the recession. Millions of men and women have lost their jobs.

But during Obama’s first three years in office, employment in the executive branch of government increased. At the end of 2011, the last year for which the Office of Personnel Management had figures, 2,756,000 people worked in the executive branch. When Obama took office, the number was 2,692,000.

And no one has counted the number of virtually permanent “contract employees” working for Uncle Sam.

An expanding bureaucracy, agencies such as the EPA given too much power to start with, errors in granting authority to the president and “mandatory appropriations” have made the government a sort of out-of-control perpetual motion machine.

I wonder if they’re explaining that in civics classes these days.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Mike Myer is executive editor of The Intelligencer and the Wheeling News-Register. He can be reached via e-mail at