A good test of whether the 113th Congress is likely to take budgeting seriously will come early this week, when the House considers the remainder of its Hurricane Sandy relief legislation.
House conservatives are proposing several amendments that would cut enough spending to offset the $17 billion base bill (H.R. 152) to be offered by Appropriations Committee Chairman Hal Rogers (R–KY). Chairman Rogers has trimmed the measure from the swollen $60 billion requested by President Obama and passed by the Senate. Nevertheless, the amendments would help. If adopted, they would, refreshingly enough, prevent the legislation from increasing net spending, despite its “disaster” and “emergency” labels.
Both President Obama and the Senate have exploited those designations—huge loopholes built into the Budget Control Act (BCA), which has become Congress’s proxy budget—to exceed the BCA’s spending limits by any amount they desire. The amendments give House Members a chance to start the new Congress with a small but noteworthy act of genuine fiscal discipline.
Somewhat less encouraging: House Members also will consider an amendment to Chairman Rogers’s bill that would tack on $33 billion of pork-laden spending, without offsets.
The “emergency” designation for the Sandy relief bill always was somewhat disingenuous. In its initial request for $60.4 billion in supplemental funds, the Administration invoked language from the BCA allowing such spending beyond existing limits if the need was, among other things, “sudden, urgent, unforeseen.” The request was submitted, however, on December 7, more than a month after the superstorm struck—making it difficult to see the urgency. That is even more true now, with another five weeks having passed.
Furthermore, it is not uncommon for Congress to offset supplemental spending. The Congressional Research Service recently reported that of 59 supplemental spending bills enacted since January 1, 1990—including measures affecting the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s Disaster Relief Fund—31 contained rescissions that at least partly offset the added spending. Even if that were not true, however, today’s trillion-dollar deficits make it imperative that Congress avoid more debt-financed spending wherever possible. The amendments to the Rogers bill would be an initial gesture in that direction.
Regrettably, even that could be more than undone by the $33 billion amendment, to be offered separately by Representative Rodney Frelinghuysen (R–NJ), Chairman of the Appropriations Subcommittee on Energy and Water. It merely repeats Congress’s all-too-typical practice of larding up emergency bills to slide through excess spending items that should be scrutinized in the regular budget process, or dropped altogether. The amendment includes funding for future weather disasters, weather forecasting, repairs to the Smithsonian Institution, and upgrades to National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration airplanes, among myriad other extraneous items. It’s difficult to see how any of this will help Sandy’s victims.
One of the most stunning elements in the amendment is $16 billion for the Community Development Block Grant, a slush fund that states and localities can hand out pretty much anywhere they choose. The amendment contains several pages of language ostensibly aimed at restricting use of the funds, but also says they can be applied to “other eligible events in calendar years 2011, 2012, and 2013.” It’s just a guess, but events in 2011 and 2013 are not likely the result of Hurricane Sandy.
This is the kind of spending that helps unravel coherent budgeting and contributes to chronic, trillion-dollar deficits. It also lures states and localities into greater dependence on federal funds, further undermining the principle of federalism. It does not by any stretch meet the test of “emergency” or “disaster” spending, and should be dropped.
To its credit, the House so far has succeeded in slowing this monstrous spending bill. With huge budget challenges facing the 113th Congress—including another vote, soon, on raising the government’s debt ceiling—one can hope lawmakers will at last begin to demonstrate the fiscal discipline they keep talking about. The Sandy relief bill presents an early and excellent opportunity.