David Martosko, Daily Mail, November 26, 2014
Conservatives in the U.S. Senate got a powerful weapon on Wednesday in the battle over whether they can pull the rug out from under President Barack Obama’s plan to mainstream millions of illegal immigrants into American life.
Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions, the Republican’ top budget hawk, has unveiled a Nov. 21 memo from the Congressional Research Service (CRS) explaining that Congress can legally strip funding from America’s immigration enforcement agency–including funds the agency raises on its own through fees it charges Americans and foreigners.
That news will put fuel in the tank of right-wingers who want to paint Obama into a corner when the GOP controls both houses of Congress in January.
Citing ‘Congress’s constitutional power over the purse,’ the CRS–Capitol Hill’s official nonpartisan research arm–instructed Sessions that lawmakers can pick and choose what executive branch agencies can spend money on.
‘An agency is not free simply to disregard’ those orders, the memo read.
Some government agencies are funded by congressional ‘appropriations’ and others are ‘self-funded’ by fees, but the CRS memo indicates that Congress is in the driver’s seat no matter what.
That question had been left hanging in an internecine Republican feud that spilled out into news coverage and the blogosphere in the weeks since the midterm elections.
Sessions and other Senate conservatives argue in favor of ‘de-funding’ U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, a subagency of the Homeland Security Department, in order to force an Obama administration retreat from what they term an ‘amnesty’ for more than 5 million people living in the U.S. illegally.
Moderates, led by House Appropriations Committee chair Hal Rogers of Kentucky, insist the gesture would be an empty one since the White House could legally thumb its nose at Congress by self-funding the agency.
USCIS will print and distribute green cards and work authorization cards for the millions of immigrants likely to benefit from Obama’s executive order, announced last week. Those cards and other documents will cost money–arguably bringing in more than the agency needs–even if congressional Republicans try to freeze it out.
Rogers cautioned last Thursday, after Obama unveiled his unprecedented immigration plan, that since ‘Congress does not appropriate funds for any of [USCIS’s] operations . . . the Appropriations process cannot be used to “de-fund” the agency.’
Obama’s immigration bureaucracy, he argued, ‘has the ability to continue to collect and use fees to continue current operations, and to expand operations as under a new Executive Order, without needing legislative approval.’
Rogers, multiple Capitol Hill sources confirmed Wednesday, is focused on passing a so-called ‘omnibus’ budget bill by December 11 when the current agreement funding the federal government expires–and has ignored pleas from his right to force-feed the White House a series of piecemeal bills instead.
While the normal appropriations procedure makes it difficult to seize control of fees that an agency like USCIS might use to plot its own course, a different maneuver–writing a short piece of legislation–would unlock what Congress needs.
The Congressional Research Service sided with Sessions.
Even if USCIS gets no money from Congress at all, the memo states, ‘the funds available to the agency through fee collections would be subject to the same potential restrictions imposed by Congress.’
‘Importantly,’ CRS adds, ‘amounts received as fees by federal agencies must still be appropriated by Congress to that agency in order to be available for obligation or expenditure by the agency.’
A senior aide to a conservative Republican House Appropriations Committee member told MailOnline on Wednesday that ‘this analysis means Hal Rogers is way off-base.’
‘This is no different from entrance fees charged by the National Parks,’ he said. ‘Congress can certainly tell the Interior Department what it can and can’t do with that money. Park rangers can’t just stick their tongue out at us and spend that money doing something Congress forbids, like giving tap-dance lessons to grizzly bears.’
‘If we could stop that, we can stop this.’
A second House aide said even if moderate Republicans weren’t sure they had the authority to stop USCIS from printing green cards with its own money, ‘they could just legislate that. It’s not hard.’
On the senate side, an aide close to the Budget Committee told MailOnline that the CRS report ‘should be the end of this technical debate.’
‘The report clearly says Congress can use the appropriations process to deny the funds needed to implement the president’s illegal amnesty and work authorization program,’ the aide said.
‘The GOP made a promise to midterm voters to battle this amnesty and secure their livelihoods. This has become yet more imperative following confirmations that legalized populations will draw Social Security and Medicare checks from American families.’
Sessions seemed ready to fight all 12 rounds last Thursday.
‘The House should send the Senate a government funding bill which ensures no funds can be spent for this unlawful purpose,’ he said Nov. 20.
On Wednesday his office sent MailOnline a statement insisting that ‘the suggestion that the White House can implement any unlawful and unconstitutional act so long as it pays for it with assessed fees is just plain wrong.’
‘There is no question that Congress has the power to block this expenditure and no doubt that it can be done,’ he said.
Even a potential lawsuit, CRS wrote, would likely tilt in favor of lawmakers who want to tie Obama’s hands.
A court ‘could find’ that a congressional restriction on Homeland Security spending ‘reached activities or agencies that were entirely fee-funded,’ according to the report.