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Editor's Pick

Seven Emergency Spending Reforms Congress Should Consider

Romina Boccia and Dominik Lett

Curved roadway with guardrails passing through mountainous landscape

Congress designated $12 trillion as emergency spending over the last 30 years, according to our recent policy analysis. That’s equal to 43 percent of public debt. Despite the true size and scope of emergency spending remaining obscured until recently, some legislators have been leading the way on the interlinked issues of emergency spending and emergency powers.

Congress should rein in emergency abuse. During emergencies, Congress overspends because legislators are not subject to effective spending restraints. Excessive emergency powers further undermine legislative accountability. Coming out of one of the largest emergency spending sprees in US history, the time to rein in emergency abuses is now, before the next disaster strikes. America cannot afford another unrestricted emergency spending splurge given our already unsustainable fiscal trajectory, driven by high interest costs and the growth in health care and old‐​age entitlement spending.

Here are seven emergency spending reforms to address emergency abuse:

Offset emergency spending

Congress should establish a budget enforcement mechanism to offset new emergency expenditures, preferably at the same time as emergency spending takes place or at least over the near‐​term future with spending reductions to lesser priorities in the budget. Under the current system, legislators leverage emergencies as a pretext to pass budget‐​breaking initiatives with no consideration for future budget restraint. Establishing an offsetting mechanism gives appropriators the flexibility to address emergencies when necessary while also incentivizing forward‐​thinking budget planning.

The Responsible Budget Targets Act introduced by Rep. Emmer (R‑MN) and Sen. Braun (R‑IN) (H.R.7420 and S.772, respectively) implements offsets over a six‐​year period. As Kurt Couchman of Americans for Prosperity explains:

[The Responsible Budget Targets Act] would keep emergency response from becoming a budget loophole by requiring cap reductions over the following six years. A $6 billion emergency, for example, would reduce the caps in the following six years by $1 billion each year. The aversion to unnecessary spending restraint or new revenue in the near future would help Congress limit emergency response to what’s actually needed and be less of a vehicle for waste.

Raise emergency spending voting thresholds

Under Senate rules, legislators can make a “point of order” objection to emergency designations. Strengthening and enforcing similar procedural rules would help prevent superfluous and excessive emergency spending. In the face of a significant and broadly recognized crisis, legislators should be able to overcome their political differences and a higher voting threshold. The point is not to make emergency designations impossible but to create a meaningful hurdle that only genuine emergencies can clear.

In 2019, Rep. Walker (R‑NC) and Sen. Romney (R‑UT) introduced the Budgeting for Disasters Act (H.R.3217 and S.1579, respectively) which proposed increasing the number of votes required to waive the Senate point of order against an emergency designation from three‐​fifths to two‐​thirds. Raising this voting threshold would be a step forward in deterring the use of emergency funds for non‐​emergency priorities.

End executive emergency declarations after 30 days

Under the National Emergency Act, the president can declare a national emergency, formalize a state of emergency and unlock extraordinary emergency powers. Both President Trump (border wall) and President Biden (student loan debt) leveraged emergency powers to bypass the democratic process at the expense of the taxpayer. Creating a “shot clock” where emergency declarations automatically expire unless extended by Congress would limit costly executive overreach and challenge our never‐​ending state of emergency.

The ARTICLE ONE Act introduced by Rep. Roy (R‑TX) and Sen. Lee (R‑UT) (H.R.3988 and S.1912, respectively) reigns in excessive emergency powers by restricting presidential emergency declarations to 30 days unless reauthorized by Congress. Other bills that include the same or a similar policy change have garnered support from both sides of the aisle, including the National Security Powers Act of 2021, the Congressional Powers of the Purse Act, and the Protecting Our Democracy Act.

Enhance transparency over executive emergency spending

The National Emergency Act requires the president to submit emergency expenditure reports to Congress during and/​or after an emergency. The intention is to provide transparency and accountability to aid Congress in policing executive abuses of emergency funds. The current system is convoluted, and reports are not easily available or detailed. Congress should hold the executive accountable and make these expenditure reports both more detailed and publicly available.

The National Emergency Expenditure Reporting Transparency Act introduced by Rep. Gosar (R‑AZ) and Sen. Marshall (R‑KS) (H.R.4615 and S.2300, respectively) takes a big step in the right direction by amending the Federal Funding Accountability and Transparency Act to include NEA reports. The public and concerned legislators deserve to know how the executive expends taxpayer dollars during emergencies.

Correct the budget baseline distortion

Congress uses the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) baseline to benchmark new proposals. Under the Balanced Budget and Emergency Deficit Control Act, the CBO must assume discretionary appropriations, even if for one‐​time emergency priorities, grow each year with inflation. This practice creates a ratchet effect, building an expectation for higher spending and distorting the budgetary picture.

In 2019, Sen. Enzi (R‑WY) introduced the Bipartisan Congressional Budget Reform Act (S.2765), which made a slew of budget‐​related reforms, including removing all cap‐​exempted spending from the budget baseline. Exempting emergency spending from the baseline better reflects the reality that emergency designations should be temporary, one‐​time expenditures.

Justify emergency designations

In 1991, the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) laid out a five‐​part test that all emergency designations should meet: necessary, sudden, urgent, unforeseen, and nonpermanent. Despite the 2011 Budget Control Act codifying this definition into law, these emergency criteria are not well enforced. Prior designations we have spotlighted make one question whether appropriators even consider these criteria at all when designating emergency funds. Congress should require any legislation with emergency funding to include a findings section that describes how each emergency designation meets all five of the OMB’s criteria.

As the Congressional Research Service (CRS) explains, committees are already required to produce accompanying reports for appropriations. These reports include details about everything from budget authority to budget justifications to agency‐​specific directives. Requiring appropriators to explain why new emergency designations are justified is a low bar to clear and so commonsense that many Americans probably already assume it is happening. Moreover, it could expose just how ridiculous some of the most egregious emergency designations truly are.

Regularly report on emergency spending

In a similar vein, Congress could require regular reporting on emergency designations for each fiscal year. Prior to our study, no comprehensive analysis of emergency spending existed. That is despite emergency spending making up an increasing share of the overall budget and most of the information being readily available.

Previous work by the CBO, Government Accountability Office, and Congressional Research Service can act as a good guide. If GAO or CRS were to produce more regular reporting, here’s what they should attempt to answer:

  • How much federal spending was designated as an emergency for the purposes of budget enforcement?
  • How much federal spending was exempted from normal budget enforcement, including emergency designations and related cap adjustments such as Disaster Relief, Wildfire Suppression, and Overseas Contingency Operations?
  • How was emergency spending distributed in annual and supplemental appropriations? For supplemental appropriations, what emergency designated provisions are unrelated to the event/issue(s) that prompted the supplemental?
  • How was emergency spending distributed in mandatory or direct spending?
  • What type of emergency, if any, prompted the usage of emergency‐​designated funds?
  • Are emergency provisions consistent with emergency designation criteria?
  • How does new emergency spending compare to prior fiscal years? Are certain programs routinely funded through emergency designations or related budget categories exempt from normal budget enforcement?
  • What is the budgetary impact of new emergency spending, including emergency spending’s contribution to the national debt?

Set guardrails

Congress has a habit of playing fast and loose with emergency spending, with deleterious effects on the deficits and debt. The next major emergency could significantly worsen our already dire fiscal situation, rapidly advancing the prospects of a severe fiscal crisis. Legislators have the opportunity and obligation to establish sensible emergency guardrails now before it’s too late.

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