Congress’ “emergency” spending is out of control
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!