Congress Should Reclaim Its Power of the Purse

Special Guests: Richard Swett

Share this page

This week on Facing the Future we talked with former Congressman and Ambassador to Denmark Richard Swett about the work he’s been doing with a Princeton University initiative on restoring the Constitutional powers of Congress. Swett serves on a subcommittee dealing with the power of the purse, something of great interest to The Concord Coalition. He told us about the subcommittee’s ideas for improving transparency and accountability of the congressional spending power. We also got Swett’s perspectives on the security challenges in Israel and Ukraine. 

In our final segment we discussed a new Concord Coalition issue brief on a proposal to cut taxes on Social Security benefits and why that would not be a good idea. Concord Coalition policy director Tori Gorman and chief economist Steve Robinson joined the conversation.

Swett told us that the Princeton group on the power of the purse has been “looking at this for several years now, and it has all come about because of the actual diminution of powers that Congress has over the budget making process. It has become very problematic, and a lot of people are very alarmed by that. And so what this subcommittee has really gone after is; what are the things that can be done to restore that power?”

He said, “one of the things that we’ve looked at is transparency. We on the subcommittee felt very strongly that transparency needs to be reimplemented, and the American public needs to have access to the process that this very difficult budget management process undergoes.

Swett observed that even members of Congress don’t always take the time needed to know what’s in the spending bills they vote on. “They’re choosing to focus on getting TV time,” he said, “or getting in front of their constituents. It doesn’t have the impact of reading a piece of legislation and voting in an informed way.”

In Swett’s view, a key goal is restoring trust. “Every time you have a process that is ignored, or is not treated with respect or people are not held accountable for, I think that takes another chink out of the armor of trust that the public has for the government,” he said, “and in making things transparent and making people accountable you have to start with small accomplishments and small steps. You start by having a conversation about common values and common ideas and ideals. And you agree on the small point. And you build that relationship from there.”

On the war in Gaza, Swett noted, “My main concern is that the appropriate responsibility will not be ascribed to the appropriate party for what began this whole conflagration. When you have a terrorist organization that does an act of terrorism, they should bear the responsibility, and that should be the end of that discussion. What this has revealed in communities all over the world is that there is a vibrant system of beliefs that is anti-semitic, and that doesn’t have the ability to discern what a terrorist attack is versus a provoked response.”

He emphasized that our global challenges are all connected. “It’s important that, as the United States works to resolve the problems in the Middle East with Hamas and Israel or works to support Ukraine in its fight against the Russian invasion, I think those things are also investments that deter China from doing something with Taiwan that would cause a real problem in that neck of the woods. So it’s very difficult to separate these things entirely,” Swett said.

In our final segment, Concord Coalition chief economist Steve Robinson explained the problems that would arise from cutting taxes on Social Security benefits. “According to the trustees,” he said, “on a what’s called a present value basis – the lump sum value of all the taxes that we’re going to impose on Social Security benefits – it’s about $6 trillion, which is equivalent to 28 percent of the unfunded obligations of the program. So in other words, if you repealed the taxation of benefits, you would increase the shortfall by nearly 30 percent.”

It does not get any better by replacing the lost revenue by crediting the trust fund with general revenue. “The problem,” Robinson said, “is that taxing benefits produces real revenue. The government is running a deficit, so if you repeal the tax and credit the trust fund with general revenue, it’s basically an accounting gimmick. There’s no real money there to replace the income tax revenue with. So it would significantly damage the solvency of the program.”

Hear more on Facing the Future. I host the program each week on WKXL in Concord N.H., and it is also available via podcast. Join our guests as we discuss issues relating to national fiscal policy with budget experts, industry leaders, and elected officials. Past broadcasts are available here. You can subscribe to the podcast on Spotify, Pandora, iTunes, Google Podcasts, Stitcher, or with an RSS feed. Follow Facing the Future on Facebook, and watch videos from past episodes on The Concord Coalition YouTube channel.


Share this page