The Free Press
Although Congress has approved budget discipline rules to rein in deficit spending for some 20 years, there seems to be little budget discipline. Along the way, members of Congress also have chiseled away at those rules under the cover of their opaque institution.
The nonpartisan Concord Coalition that advocates for responsible federal budgeting has highlighted dangerous developments in the breakdown of rules aimed at restraining federal spending.
The amount of so-called “Emergency Spending” at the federal level has mushroomed to a point of increasing deficits under the guise of a real emergency. Such emergency spending has in the past not required much debate in Congress or any rule whatsoever to determine if it indeed is an emergency.
Certainly, a natural disaster like Hurricane Katrina qualified as emergency spending. But other items could be considered questionable. Senate Agriculture Committee Chair Blanche Lincoln, D-Ark., recently requested emergency funding to pay farmers for a discrimination suit they brought against a government program.
Others have questioned whether the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan or the stimulus bill of 2009 should be considered emergency spending. Both were.
Getting a bill designated as “Emergency Spending” removes it from several budget rules, including the noted PAYGO rules that require new spending to be offset by cuts in the federal budget elsewhere so as not to increase the deficit.
But the Concord Coalition notes a definition of emergency spending has never been written into law. There has been some movement lately to include a CBO recommended definition into Senate Budget Committee rules. Still, this undefined emergency spending has once again been exempted from the new PAYGO legislation President Obama signed in 2009.
When spending is designated as emergency, it isn’t required to be listed in the federal budget or the federal deficit. While the Bush Administration was running the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the several hundred billion dollar costs were never figured into the federal bottom line because they were designated as “emergency spending.”
And the trend in emergency spending is only growing. The Congressional Budget Office notes while emergency spending totaled $99 billion in the 1980s and $86 billion in the 1990s, it rose to $100 billion in a single year many years from 2000 to 2009 for a total of $907 billion.
The Concord Coalition notes that fuzziness of what emergency spending is has not been lost on politicians of both parties. They use that designation for their projects to circumvent vetting in the budget process. A General Accounting Office report that studied emergency spending projects from 1997 to 2006, found $31 billion of the projects fell short of even a minimum definition of emergency spending. Even the Census, which we have known will be an expense for some 200 years, was designated as emergency spending.
So what can be done?
First, Congress needs to put into law a real definition of emergency spending. Projects that don’t meet the criteria, should not be considered emergency and must face other budget rules. Those projects should be subject to congressionally approved PAYGO rules.
Congress needs to look at what has been designated as emergency spending in the past and apply the CBO recommended rules of two decades ago. Those are: That emergency spending be an “essential and vital” expenditure, not just a “beneficial” expenditure. Emergency spending should be something that has come up suddenly, not built up over time. And finally, emergency spending should be urgent, unforeseen and not permanent.
In essence, emergency spending should be for an emergency.
That’s common sense budgeting.