President Obama announced a massive new federal spending program by executive decree on December 1. The program would create an expensive new federal aid program for local police agencies, the president announced in remarks from the Eisenhower Executive Office Building:
“I’m going to be proposing some new community policing initiatives that will significantly expand funding and training for local law enforcement, including up to 50,000 additional body-worn cameras for law enforcement agencies. And I look forward to working with Congress to make sure that in addition to what I can do administratively with the resources that we’ve already gotten, that we are in a conversation with law enforcement that wants to do the right thing to make sure that they’re adequately resourced for the training and the technology that can enhance trust between communities and police.”
By “proposing,” Obama’s spokesmen revealed, he essentially meant enact and spend. While more accountability for local police is an objectively good end (albeit from local citizens acting through their elected officials), the means by which this program was created is far more important and highly objectionable. First, local police agencies are fully capable of funding the purchase of these devices on their own; indeed, they would get the money for the purchase of cameras from the same place as the federal government: the American taxpayer. It’s not as if the federal government pulls wealth out of a void that is inaccessible to state and local governments which it can apply it to presidential wishlists.
And more important than the issue of federalism and decentralization is that Obama would fund the program exclusively by executive fiat. The Washington, D.C. newspaper The Hill noted that Obama’s new local police program would cost taxpayers some $263 million over three years ($75 million of which would purchase the cameras), all spent without so much as a “by your leave” from Congress. Sure, Obama talked about working with Congress in the speech excerpted above. But he also made abundantly clear that the new program would spend the specified money whether Congress sent him more funds or not. Obama essentially announced that he had found $263 million under the seat cushions of the White House couch that he could spend at whim.
Obama’s police-camera announcement brings up a critical question: If the president can create a new program to spend hundreds of millions of dollars out of thin air without a peep from Congress, what need is there for a Congress to control the nation’s purse strings under the U.S. Constitution?
Republican congressional leadership rhetoric has changed some since the elections. “There will be no government shutdowns,” incoming Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) promised in the day after the November elections. It’s unclear if McConnell will make good on that earlier promise, given the broad unilateral demands on spending made by the executive branch in recent years, or if he will bring the executive branch down to its constitutional limitations.
President Obama also has started his own new wars in Syria, Libya and Iraq without congressional approval, in direct contravention of the U.S. Constitution (which reserves the war powers to Congress alone) and the 1973 War Powers Resolution. These wars have already cost tens of billions of dollars, and the funds were committed without the consent — and sometimes without even the knowledge of — Congress.