Communication Studio: Project 2

September 30

What have you identified as important pieces of information relative to your topic? Include sketches where warranted.

I’ve been assigned the federal budget for my project two topic and there are several interesting subtopics I’d like to explore.

One subtopic is the difference between mandatory and discretionary spending. Few Americans know that around 70% of the federal budget is already allocated, and Congress’s appropriations committee has no control over it. Mandatory spending includes the nation’s three largest entitlement programs — Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid — and smaller programs like unemployment compensation, retirement programs for federal employees, and student loans. The remaining budget is known as discretionary spending and is appropriated by Congress each year. Discretionary spending is the part of the budget that Congress has control over and thus what triggers political battles. It includes most defense, education, and transportation programs, among many other federal programs.

October 4

I’ve decided to focus on a structural aspect of the budget. I think it would be interesting to explore the origin and rationale behind the division of spending power and budgeting responsibilities between the House of Representative, the Senate, and the President. In terms of my video, this would mean discussing the constitutional language that grants Congress the power to appropriate and spend money, the subtleties and interpretations of that power, and the framer’s rationale for separating powers in that way.

From speaking with my peers who have been assigned the same topic, I know that many are choosing to focus on procedural aspects of the budget, such as how the budget is passed over a normal, contemporary fiscal year. They are tackling this complex procedure with thoughtful approaches and I look forward to continuing to observe their work. That said, this procedural lens doesn’t interest me as much as the understanding the power of the federal budget and the origins of that power. I suspect it will be rewarding and interesting to have videos that discuss different aspects of the federal budget.

This weekend, I looked into three features of the federal budget authority that will be important to explore in my final video: (1) Constitutional authority to appropriate and spend money; (2) the budgetary author as a counterbalance to Executive power; (3) Congress’s use of “backdoor spending.”

No Money shall be drawn from the Treasury, but in Consequence of Appropriations made by Law; and a regular Statement and Account of the Receipts and Expenditures of all public Money shall be published from time to time.

US Constitution, Article I, Section 9, Clause 7

We can break this clause into two parts, the Appropriations and the Statement and Account provisions. The first part of the clause has do with the appropriation of money from the treasury (“No Money shall be drawn from the Treasury, but in Consequence of Appropriations made by Law . . .”). This part assigns to Congress the legislative duty to exercise control and responsibility for the federal fiscal spending. In other words, Congress is the final arbiter of the use of public funds. Importantly, the language of this clause gives Congress the power to limit spending, saying that no money can be spent without expressly being appropriated by Congress. This is different from the power to spend, which is more commonly given to Congress in the Necessary and Proper Clause (I’ll need to go into this in more detail later on).

In specifying the activities on which public funds may be spent, Congress defines the contours of federal power. This requirement of legislative appropriation before public funds are spent is at the foundation of our constitutional order.

-Kate Stith, Professor of Law at Yale University Law School

The second part of the clause, known as the Statement and Accounts provision reads “Statement and Account of the Receipts and Expenditures of all public Money shall be published from time to time.” Justice Joseph Story argued that this provision makes Congress’s responsibility as guardian of the public treasure “complete and perfect” by requiring an account of receipts and expenditures “that the people may know, what money is expended, for what purposes, and by what authority.” Today, the “discretion of the legislature” is a “plenary power to exact any reporting and accounting [the Congress] considers appropriate in the public interest.” United States v. Richardson (1974).

Thus Congress is granted the responsibility to make the final determination around what money is taken from the treasury, but also a responsibility to make an accounting of this information available to the public. This responsibility to make public the usage of Treasury dollars forces a level of government transparency and an accountability to the public.

The Appropriations Clause was intended as a restriction upon the authority of the Executive branch to disburse federal dollars. When the founders created an independent Executive Authority, they were worried about the consolidation of power under that authority, the possibility of the new republic devolving into a monarchy. To protect the nascent democratic republic, the founders installed constitutional barriers between each branch, to ensure that each had the means of self protection against the encroaching power of the other two, colloquially known as checks and balances.

Furthermore, these checks and balances also had to have some weight behind them. James Madison famously warned of the inadequacy of mere “parchment barriers.” Each branch of government must therefore also be granted powers that will allow it to check the other two branches.

One of the most significant self-protection devices for the legislature is the ability to restrict the executive’s access to public resources “but in the Consequence of Appropriations made by Law.”

And the [legislature] has, and must have, a controlling influence over the executive power, since it holds at its own command all the resources by which a chief magistrate could make himself formidable. It possesses the power over the purse of the nation and the property of the people. It can grant or withhold supplies; it can levy, or withdraw taxes; it can unnerve the power of the sword by striking down the arm which wields it.

After the Constitution was drafted in 1787, it needed to ratified by the state legislatures. In order to convince voters to approve the new Constitution James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, and John Jay wrote the Federalist Papers. In The Federalist №58, James Madison described the centrality of the power of the purse’s role in the growth of representative government and its particular importance in the Constitution’s governmental structure:

The House of Representatives cannot only refuse, but they alone can propose the supplies requisite for the support of government. They, in a word, hold the purse — that powerful instrument by which we behold, in the history of the British Constitution, an infant and humble representation of the people gradually enlarging the sphere of its activity and importance, and finally reducing, as far as it seems to have wished, all the overgrown prerogatives of the other branches of the government. This power over the purse may, in fact, be regarded as the most complete and effectual weapon with which any constitution can arm the immediate representatives of the people, for obtaining a redress of every grievance, and for carrying into effect every just and salutary measure.

Despite the founders focus on the importance of Congress’s power of the purse, there are several circumstances were federal dollars are spent without the statutes that are called appropriations, these are sometimes categorized as “backdoor spending.”

The largest chunk of this kind of spending occurs when Congress passes a law that indefinitely authorizes federal agencies to spend Treasury funds or special-purpose taxes, without specific appropriation of those funds. These include payments toward the national debt and statutory entitlement programs such as Social Security, unemployment benefits, and MEDICARE/MEDICAID. These entitlement programs are funded indefinitely and permanently, and they constitute a huge part of the federal budget, known as mandatory spending.

In the case of an emergency, a President can circumstances justify spending that is not appropriated by Congress. For instance, at the outbreak of the Civil War, Lincoln ordered the expenditure of two million dollars in federal funds.

Below are early-stage sketches that outline the expected narrative of my video.

Narrative sketches

October 7

The following is a first draft of my script for my video:

  1. C-Span footage of US representatives debating funding and the federal budget.
  2. “This is [insert reps name] discussing a potential new bill in Congress. The proposed bill is part of the six trillion dollar proposed 2021 budget from President Biden.”
  3. Government spending is broken down into three categories: mandatory spending, budgeted at $4.018 trillion; discretionary spending, forecasted to be $1.688 trillion; and interest on the national debt, estimated to be $305 billion.
  4. It could put $300 dollars a month in the pockets of working families and add trillions to the national debt.
  5. But why does [insert reps name] and the rest of Congress have the power to make this determination, and determine the fate of the rest of President Biden’s proposed $4 trillion budget? Why does the political power of budgeting for a nation fall to Congress.
  6. Well, like most major governmental powers, it’s allocated in the US Constitution. The Constitution provides the framework for our government and the supreme law of the land, including the powers of budgeting treasury dollars.
  7. Congress’s powers are enumerated in Article I Section 8 of the Constitution. In fact, the first two powers enumerated to Congress are to raise taxes and borrow money.
  8. However, the power to tax and borrow doesn’t explicitly mean the power to spend money. If Congress is only given the power to raise money for the treasury, why does it also exercise the power to control spending?
  9. One answer to that question is the last power enumerated to Congress, known as the necessary and proper clause:

To make all Laws which shall be necessary and proper for carrying into Execution the foregoing Powers, and all other Powers vested by this Constitution in the Government of the United States, or in any Department or Officer thereof.

  1. This clause gives Congress the power to enact laws necessary for the carrying out of the previous enumerated powers. For example, to exercise the power to defend the nation, you might also need the power to raise an army.
  2. Similarly, the power to control taxation and borrowing money, also necessitates the power to control spending.
  3. Consider if Congress didn’t have the power to control spending. The Executive branch could withdrawal money from the treasury freely, which would compel the Congress to tax and borrow in order to cover those expenditures.
  4. Thus, in order to exercise their enumerated power to tax and borrow, Congress must also have the power to control spending.
  5. And so Congress becomes the final arbiter of public funds, any federal dollars spent must be expressly appropriated — or put aside — by Congress.
  6. But the power to control funding doesn’t include the responsibility to budget, which involves accounting for the expenditures and revenues. For this, we have to look elsewhere in the Constitution, to the Statement and Accounts Provision
  7. “A regular Statement and Account of the Receipts and Expenditures of all public Money shall be published from time to time.”
  8. One of the last amendments made to the Constitution, this provision gives Congress the responsibility to make an accounting of all the money taken from and deposited into the treasury and make the information available to the public.
  9. That’s where Congress receives the power to spend and budget. But why is this where the power lies. Since the Executive branch is the one actually distributing these funds, why wouldn’t they have control over the flow of money?
  10. The short answer is, it prevents power from being consolidated in the executive branch.
  11. In 1787, when the Founders were creating an Executive authority, the President, they were worried about this executive overpowering the other branches, the new republic devolving into a monarchy.
  12. To protect the nascent democratic republic, the founders installed constitutional barriers between each branch, to ensure that each had the means of self protection against the encroaching power of the other two, colloquially known as checks and balances.
  13. After all, the Executive branch controls the nation’s defense, enforcement of laws, and administration of social programs. In the wrong hands, these are the powers that could easily be abused.
  14. The power to spend is a formidable check that can counter the Executive’s powers.
  15. “And the [legislature] has, and must have, a controlling influence over the executive power, since it holds at its own command all the resources by which a chief magistrate could make himself formidable. It possesses the power over the purse of the nation and the property of the people. It can grant or withhold supplies; it can levy, or withdraw taxes; it can unnerve the power of the sword by striking down the arm which wields it.”
  16. Power of spending and budgeting is also vested in the Congress because it keeps it closest to the people, in the form of their representatives in Congress.

October 12

I was staring at my computer for an all-to-long block of time tonight trying to figure out how to effectively storyboard a video using the script from my last post. After a few hours, I left in frustration and, moments after I left my desk, realized that my storyboard was too ambitious. There was no way I could effectively capture it for this project. My script was trying to get across to viewers everything I found interesting about the budget at the expense the basic facts about the budget.

In light of this realization, I’ve decided to cut the sections of my narrative that deal with checks and balances, as that’s a topic that deserves its own standalone video. I’m also going to add a reference at the beginning which deals with what a budget is, and defines the federal government for viewers. It might look something like this:

  1. [Across the screen] United States Federal Budget
  2. VO: The United States federal budget is an annually published document that catalogues the spending and revenues of the national government.
  3. It covers the entire cost of federal programs like social security, medicare, medicare, and national defense, amongst many others. Together, these budget items reflect the governing priorities and dominant economic philosophies of the United States.
  4. It’s a tremendous responsibility, and it belongs to the United States Congress: composed of the House of Representatives, who are apportioned according to the population of each state and the Senate, where each state is allotted two representatives.
  5. But where does Congress get the power to budget, why does this republican body get to determine the taxes American citizens pay and the benefits they receive?

From here, the script would remain return to my first draft, at the point where it discusses the power given to Congress to tax, borrow, and spend.

October 14

Our activity at the beginning of class helped to clarify what I want out this project. Coming away from this project, I’d like to have tackled visualization at least one complex, abstract idea. I’d like to tackle an idea like the threat of executive overreach, which has no obvious metaphor or mental model attached to it and is fairly complex to begin with. If I’m able to capture one of these ideas successfully, I’ll walk away from this project satisfied and knowing that I’ve learned something.

Steps to get there:

  • Simplify my narrative even further. I need to concentrate on a few key ideas.
  • Redraft the storyboard best on these narrative revisions.
  • Not get caught up too much in the styling of the video, as I know that I easily get caught up in that and spend far too much time fiddling around with visual treatment.
  • Set aside time to work on the project before the days leading up to our IxD project deadline.

October 19

Our other major studio project took up most of my time this past weekend. I didn’t put as much time I would have liked into our communication design project. That said, I did have time to make some revisions to the project narrative, and was able to get some valuable feedback on my storyboard from Stacie. Stacie offered a lot of targeted feedback to improve the video, I’ve summarized a few of the major points below, which I’ll need to keep in mind as I revise my storyboard and head into After Effects to begin animating.

  • The section concerning how the executive branch could consolidate power needs to revised and drawn out to make things more clear.
  • Rely less on common symbols to get meaning across.
  • Leverage motion as much as possible to communicate.
  • It might be helpful to drop the section about the Congress’s responsiveness to the will of the people.

October 21

An updated storyboard for my video are below. The challenge with this latest round of iterations is editing down the three sections into only the most essential bits of information.

Section 1 — Introduction

  1. The United States federal budget catalogues the revenue and outlay of the national government.
  2. Revenue is the money that the national government takes in through taxation, largely taxes on one’s wages, known as payroll tax, and taxes on individual income.
  3. Outlays are what the government spends, the largest portion include spending on defense, interest on the national debt, and entitlements like social security.
  4. Together, these budget items reflect the governing priorities and dominant economic philosophies of the United States.
  5. It’s an enormous responsibility, and it belongs conjointly to the United States Congress: composed of the House of Representatives, who are apportioned according to the population of each state and the Senate, where each state is allotted two representatives.
  6. But why does Congress have the power to determine how US treasury dollars are spent and the responsibility to publish a budget accounting of this revenue and spending?
  7. Well, there are two reasons, the first is to provide a check on the executive branch, and the second is to provide an element of transparency for citizens. We’ll discuss each in turn.

Section 2 — The Executive Threat

  1. Headed by the President, the executive branch is responsible for the day-to-day enforcement and administration of federal laws. This means that the executive branch disperses almost all of the spending in the federal budget to citizens and organizations.
  2. However, Congress must set aside this money for a specific purpose, which is known as appropriation, so the executive branch can only spend the money on that specific purpose. For example, in 2020 Congress appropriated $714 billion for defense spending, the executive branch can’t transfer this money to cover education costs.
  3. This prevents the executive branch from consolidating too much power and the American system devolving into a monarchy.
  4. By Congress controlling the flow of money, it can prevent the encroaching power of the executive branch.

Section 3

  1. The second reason that Congress controls the budget process is to provide government transparency and accountability.
  2. The Constitution gives Congress the legislative duty to make an accounting of all the money taken from and deposited into the treasury and make the information available to the public.
  3. It was the intention of the Constitution’s framers that this budget force the federal government to be transparent about its use of federal money, allowing voters to hold their national representatives in Congress accountable for the use of federal dollars.
  4. This responsibility was given to Congress because it’s most accountable to voters. An individual voter has much more power in the election of their congressperson relative to a statewide or nationwide election, because the voting population size is much smaller.
  5. In theory, Congress is thus the branch of government that is most representative of the general voting population.
  6. So next time you watch or read about a battle over the spending of federal dollars, know that this deliberation is precisely what the US system of government was meant to create and that the federal budget is a device to hold your representatives accountable.

October 26

Moved into After Effects this weekend and exploring how form from the storyboard translates to AE. Here is a screenshot of an early animation sequence:

I think some of the colors might be a little heavy handed, but I think the dark background with highly saturated colors would, when used judiciously, draw viewers attention to key points.

I also updated the script and sent the final version to a voice actor. I asked for a voice actor with a strong, authoritative voice and found a very talented one from the School of Performing Arts. I’m excited to be leveraging the talent of Carnegie Mellon’s drama program for this project.

October 28

Updates to the project this week.

  • Began animating the introduction to the video, which explains what the federal budget and what it consists of. Here is a link to the draft of that part.
  • Redid the storyboard which covers the appropriation and distribution of federal dollars. In the new version, the motion of the money is circumscribed within a border that it cannot escape to illustrate the point about how appropriated money cannot be transferred to other departments by the Executive.

Major takeaways from speaking with Stacie about my storyboard:

  • Need to emphasize the finite nature of the funds in the federal budget and pie charts may do a poor job of illustrating that.
  • The motion needs to make clear that the money being collected is also being spent. Revenues and outlays are not two separate entities, they are conjoined.
  • Draw attention to elements very judiciously. The colors I’m using are very saturated and should be deployed carefully to create a sense of hierarchy. Only use them on the elements that are most important.

November 4

I should say up front that I plan on revising my video, so I’m treating this post as a to-do list of sorts. Many of my thoughts on this project at this point are changes that I want to make to my video in addition to lessons that I plan to take into future projects.

  • In After Effects is easy to get myopic and focus on a single aspect of the video. I’d like to challenge myself to get a rough outline of an animation before diving into the details. Easier said than done though.
  • Use symbols. It was my understanding that we should stray away from symbols in our videos, but I saw my classmates use symbols very effectively and I think my video would certainly benefit from using some.
  • Tell less than you think you should. My narrative refinement was a process of cutting down content — going from 700 words, to 500, and eventually somewhere around 200. It turned out, even that was too much. As I animated the video, I began to understand that the animation process inevitably causes scope creep. Transitions, visual effects, and pacing add time to the video. To properly anticipate how much time an animation will take, I would have done better to cut down my narrative even further.
  • I have a lot of trouble dividing my attention between projects. To be perfectly honest, I had difficulty putting much attention into this project as I was focused on our IxD deadline. I felt much less productive when I was trying to switch my attention between projects, so I tended toward putting all my attention toward IxD then, once it was turned in, turning all my attention toward this project. I’m not sure this is a deficiency on my part or just a working style, but it’s certainly something to helpful to understand and anticipate for the next project.

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Masters candidate in Interaction Design at Carnegie Mellon University

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jonah

jonah

Masters candidate in Interaction Design at Carnegie Mellon University

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