Congress’ “emergency” spending is out of control

June 10, 2010

After listening to President Barack Obama call for fiscal restraint in his State of the Union Address this January, the United States Senate imposed the “paygo” rule on itself – no new expenditures unless offset by an equal amount of spending cuts or raised taxes. In the five months since vowing no new spending based on debt, the United States Senate has also voted for $400 billion in new spending that was added to the federal debt. Right now the Senate is debating adding another $80 billion or so in new spending based on borrowing.

As political flaming hypocrisy goes, that’s nothing! The House imposed paygo on itself in January 2007, and since has voted for $5.1 trillion in additions to the federal debt. House leaders support the next $80 billion in borrowing the Senate may approve.

How can the chambers of Congress formally pledge not to increase the debt, then merrily add to the debt as fast as zeroes can be printed? By stamping the word “emergency” on bills. Paygo, you see, not only does not apply to spending for entitlements, defense and interest on the national debt – these categories alone representing the lion’s share of federal expenditures. Paygo also does not apply to any bill classified as “emergency” legislation. And since paygo went into force, nearly all spending bills have been “emergency” bills.

There are two problems. The first, obviously, is hypocrisy. Democrats and Republicans alike theatrically pledge no more borrow-and-spend — knowing full well their intent is to borrow-and-spend until the cows come home. (Note to any cows reading this column: please come home.) Hypocrisy is the polite word for this kind of thing: lying is the precise word. Members of Congress deliberately lie to the public, then they wonder why Congress’s approval rating is at a record low.

The second problem is that a slapdash political attitude of calling everything an “emergency” prevents Congress from thinking clearly. Naturally, interest groups describe their every request as an “emergency.” Lawmakers should be above that ploy; instead, they embrace it, because declaring an emergency exempts them from taking responsibility.

All spending for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, for example, has been billed directly to the federal debt – that is, passed on to the young – by stamping the word “emergency” on the appropriations. Two weeks ago, the Senate moved an “emergency” spending bill for Iraq and Afghanistan military operations: the ninth consecutive year the Senate had funded the Afghanistan war on an “emergency” basis. Using the word “emergency” as an excuse to avoid facing the fiscal consequences of spending shows lack of seriousness, and mental weakness. What a dismal image for the Congress to project.

Having criticized this shoddy approach during his presidential campaign, on taking the White House, Barack Obama pledged to end “emergency” funding for wars, promising instead to fund war truthfully, by spending cuts or tax increases. Instead there was an “emergency” war funding supplemental appropriation in 2009 and another, larger, emergency war funding bill this winter.

So far the entire cost of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, at least $1 trillion, has been funded by borrowing against the nation’s future, rather than by other spending cuts or by tax increases. In 1781, George Washington insisted that debts from the Revolutionary War rapidly be repaid, lest his contemporaries “ungenerously throw upon posterity the burden which we ourselves ought to bear.” If only George Washington’s spirit still could be found in Washington!

Your columnist does not often hold with Senator Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, but who can disagree with his statement about the latest “emergency” war funding vote: “This legislation is designed to bail out career politicians who want to avoid the hard work of prioritizing spending.”

War funding is hardly the only category of spending done irresponsibly, using the “emergency” stamp. In 2008, then again in 2009, then again this winter, about $1.1 trillion in “emergency” economic stimulus funding has been enacted, including a total of about $275 billion in bonus grants to state and local governments. Haiti earthquake relief is an emergency expense; routinely handing out billions to state and local governments that spent more than they have is a bailout for irresponsibility. But stamping the word “emergency” relieves Congress of accountability.

Last winter, Congress gave local governments $45 billion in borrowed money to prevent public-employee layoffs. Private-sector workers weren’t receiving any special aid against layoffs, but any local-government employee facing a layoff constituted an “emergency” (and set aside that many state and local governments would function more effectively if not overstaffed). Now local governments are asking Congress for an additional $24 billion to keep payrolls padded – of course they want more – and again are claiming “emergency.”

Last week, in a shocking development, the House actually removed another multi-billion-dollar giveaway to states from a funding bill. Carolyn Lochhead of the San Francisco Chronicle reported, ‘Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger joined 46 other governors in demanding that the Senate restore the funding.” Of course they want more.

Yesterday, the Senate put the additional billions for local governments back into a funding bill, exempt from fiscal discipline because it’s an emergency! Voting down and then voting up the same handout enables members of Congress to appear to be on both sides of this issue, depending on what groups they are speaking to – “Some of my friends are for it, some of my friends are against it, and I support my friends,” as Boss Tweed is said to have said.

In the last few years of federal politics, regardless of whether Republicans or Democrats run Congress or hold the White House, funding that is presented to the public as a temporary measure becomes the new norm, from which even greater giveaways are demanded. Endlessly exempting appropriations from discipline by using the word “emergency” encourages this mindset.

Calling nearly all federal spending “emergency” spending not only is a dodge of accountability – this is happening at a time when there is no national emergency. The United States has problems aplenty, chief among them the unemployment rate and the fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq. But there is no national emergency – nothing that threatens the survival of the nation, while most Americans are in good material circumstances, if nervous.

What if a true emergency began — another Hurricane Katrina-style event, an asteroid strike, a second major terrorist attack? We’ve held nothing in reserve, borrowing to the hilt at a time when the country is mainly fine. If a true emergency begins, the bogus “emergency” borrowing will have left the United States no place to turn.

POINTS THAT DIDN’T QUITE MAKE THE MAIN COLUMN

* Barack Obama has directed federal agencies to plan for cutting budgets five percent – not make actual cuts, mind you, merely to “plan” for fiscal discipline. The president may allow agencies that cut their budgets to keep half the savings. The political scientist Mancur Olson, who died in 1998, was an advocate of this idea, contending government agencies know any money they save will merely be wasted by another agency, giving them no incentive to reduce spending. Budget-cutting-on-commission surely is worth a try, and Obama is wise to consider this idea.
But note the president has asked his agencies to identify for possible cuts their “least critical” missions. Beyond the non-grammatical nature of that phrase, the words suggest everything government does is super-ultra important. Most federal agencies spend at least as much on featherbedding and empire-building as on any legitimate roles. Rigorous thinking about government budgets is not possible until agencies shed the make-believe that every Associate Deputy Acting Administrator for Administration is critical to the nation.
* In his State of the Union Address, the president said, “We’ve already identified $20 billion in savings for next year.”  If the White House has “already indentified” such savings, why don’t they take effect immediately? Because we’ll lose weight next year! We promise!
* The recent health care reform legislation claims to pay for itself by about $90 billion annually in savings – all to be imposed in future years. Last week, Congress quietly cancelled a $23 billion reduction in Medicare physicians’ fees that had been scheduled under a previous attempt at health care cost containment. So while this year’s  reform bill promised vague, unspecified savings at unknown future dates, the one specific federal health care cost that might have declined in 2010 instead has been converted into higher payments. But we’ll lose weight next year! We promise!

14 comments

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Thanks, Gregg! It’s nice to see someone is cutting through all the crap and getting to the real meat of the issues. Our government was created “for the people,” NOT the people for the government. Citizens don’t work to provide the government with money, they work to provide themselves with a better life. Government needs to learn to operate within the confines of a rigid budget, not keep raising the budget (and the deficit) to meet it’s “needs.” American tax payers are not some kind of giant credit card for the Federal government to swipe whenever it needs to pay for something. Lets get back to the foundations of this country and limit the role these people have in our lives and our wallets. I say America needs turn off this wasteful spending machine.

Posted by FlorenceMB2 | Report as abusive

An article of great common sense which unfortunately is missing at this point in our history of politics. Until something is removed in Washington this will continue. Great column and perhaps Gregg should consider running for public office.

Posted by avodah | Report as abusive

excellent. Reuters is not 100% Propaganda. Maybe 75% Propaganda. Some of these issues are too blatant to ignore though. We need to bring back Mfg and stop printing $$

Posted by murfster | Report as abusive

The national addiction to keeping economic zombies alive appears incurable.

If wasteful emergency government hand-outs, basically pork, to unproductive business sectors could be made retroactive and confiscated from the recipients going back over a period of say the past ten years and 50% of it reinvested in infrastrucutral economic activity, you could however be right on the money.

Posted by HBC | Report as abusive

Gregg – your column here is the BEST and most ACCURATE reporting ever published by a media outlet. You are absolutely right — “LYING is the precise word”. The debt burden has moved massive tax payer dollars from health, security and education to interest payments on national debt, and it has nothing to do with political stripe. And whats driving this?? The moral, ethical and even criminal behavior of politicians who will do anything to stay elected because they cant get enough of the drug called “power”. Until politicians are held ACCOUNTABLE we are heading for a real economic disaster of epic proportion. Good work Gregg – get this article on Reuters home page!!

Posted by gitagrip | Report as abusive

follow-up…… GREGG for PRESIDENT!!!

Posted by gitagrip | Report as abusive

Murfster has it right – bring back the manufacturing jobs and quit importing all the Chinese goods. The USA needs to get back to taking care of our own! My viewpoint might be isolationist, but why should we have to sacrifice our standard of living to bring up the rest of the world’s standard of living? I would gladly pay more for my tennis shoes, as long as we start making the rest of the world pay more for our grain! Lose the dependency on foreign oil and kick out the crooks in power! Perhaps a second American Revolution is in order.

Posted by Death2Communism | Report as abusive

[...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Jeff Archambeault, The Automatic Earth. The Automatic Earth said: Congress’ “emergency” spending is out of control http://bit.ly/c9Y6tl (A state of permanent emergency headed towards insolvency) [...]

Gregg, another strong article. My question is how do we get congress to act? The two parties have been ineffective and I have mixed views on the tea-party candidates.

Posted by DavidS95 | Report as abusive

good to see someone telling the truth and no kool aid

Posted by Nomorekoolaid | Report as abusive

The emergency which is going to put an end to this federal borrowing is a rise in yields on government debt like the ones we have seen in the weaker European economies. Although tarring the Congress for not living within our means will probably serve anti-incumbents well and makes for good reading, it is disingenuous to believe there is a real alternative.

You only need to look at Europe to see what will happen to your economy in the present climate if you make deep cuts in stepping aside as every bank and American went money like they did in the depression, or print money through borrowing to try to get through it. So of course they chose the course which would put off the crisis as long as possible. If you look at European bond yields vs. Treasuries it is apparent that this was “successful” in the short term.

The choices we could have made to ensure the coming crisis would not occur are far behind us. We could have stayed on the gold standard instead of piling on debt for decades, but only by avoiding entanglement in Vietnam. We could have decided not to spend half of all our wealth on military hardware and personnel. We could have adjusted Social Security and Medicare benefits so that the amount paid in matched the amount paid out. We could have passed laws preventing the government from borrowing from these social programs for other budgetary expenditures. And we could have regulated banks so that they were not allowed to make trillions in loans that people couldn’t pay back and that eventually had to be federalized to avoid the loss of every American’s savings in bank deposits and stocks.

Because Americans and the press failed to recognize and deal with these threats while they were still manageable, it is too late. Not fighting the wars and maintaining such a large military, by itself, might have avoided the current crisis, if we had taken a different path 40 years ago as Dwight Eisenhower suggested. But we can’t unborrow this money now. Our choices are borrow and spend until the markets cut the US off, which will inevitably happen, or cut spending and enter a deflationary spiral which destroys the wealth of every American.

Pretending we have a choice fails to recognize the reality of the situation. Not recognizing the reality of our situation, particularly in the press, has been the hallmark of every recent crisis, including Vietnam, Afghanistan, Iraq, Dot-Com, Housing, etc., etc.. The very life of our democracy depends on the effectiveness and clarity of our press and our citizen’s ability to understand our choices.

Posted by reconstructions | Report as abusive

America cannot support the 310 million people that live here in the US. 20% of them need to find another country. We just launched a Facebook competitor, http://storyburn.com.

Posted by STORBURNcom11 | Report as abusive

3 things I want to say.

1)All politicians are liars. We should know by now.
2)You cannot stop a 2-ton truck charging down the slope.
3)Would storyburn be the first of the 20%?

Posted by doctorjay317 | Report as abusive

Apres moi le deluge is probably the motto for this congress and administration.How else can they look at themselves in the mirror. This is going to end badly, sooner or later.Among heads of state,only Angela Merkel seems to be aware of the coming trainwreck, judging by how ashen-faced she appears as of late. And all the parasites of society keep marching and/or protesting. And yes, that goe for the fatcats as well. Look at TV , read your paper-everything is “local”, hear nothing, see nothing, say nothing, all keeping their heads in the sand. Nice weekend to all, anyway.

Posted by gaulimauli | Report as abusive

[...] Gregg Easterbrook wrote for Reuters a few days ago in a column titled Congress’ “Emergency” Spending is Out of Control that the Senate has waived PayGo to the tune of $400 billion: After listening to President Barack Obama call for fiscal restraint in his State of the Union Address this January, the United States Senate imposed the “paygo” rule on itself – no new expenditures unless offset by an equal amount of spending cuts or raised taxes. In the five months since vowing no new spending based on debt, the United States Senate has also voted for $400 billion in new spending that was added to the federal debt. Right now the Senate is debating adding another $80 billion or so in new spending based on borrowing. [...]

Only when those employed by the government are denied the right to vote, will this situation change.

Only those who support the government in the private sector should have a say in how their tax dollars get spent.

Remember it’s “We the People” not “We the People on the governments teat”.

Posted by jimmyjihad | Report as abusive

[...] under Paygo rules, which specify no more deficit spending — unless waivers are issued. Waivers are always issued! The national debt has increased by $6.6 trillion since Paygo “discipline” was “imposed.” [...]