October 18, 2004

October 18, 2004 | Commentary on

Legislative Lowdown

Most Americans know that fiscal discipline is rare in Washington. But few realize how far lawmakers will go to avoid making hard decisions.

The Senate Budget Committee recently surveyed the extent to which big spenders have been using what it describes as "emergency designations and other accounting gimmicks" to bust the budget for 2005. The details were presented at a recent private meeting of conservatives--and they raised eyebrows all around: $22.1 billion in proposed spending on gimmicks that allow Congress to increase spending without having to offset it elsewhere in the federal budget.

Here are some examples. Remember, these are supposed to be sudden and unforeseen emergencies:

Senate appropriators felt a mere 11.8% increase in the Woman, Infants and Children (WIC) food program was miserly, and added an additional $125 million in "emergency" funding. The total now exceeds the President's request by $503 million.

Likewise, an unprecedented 87.5% increase in funding for all categories of HIV/AIDS spending was deemed insufficient. Appropriators added an additional $150 million so that the year-to-year increase comes in at 100%.

Apparently, the Postal Service's need for $507 million to purchase biohazard detection equipment was entirely unforeseen and, therefore, qualifies as yet another emergency.

NASA's need to spend an additional $800 million on activities related to its flight program and for servicing the Hubble Space Telescope also somehow strikes Senate appropriators as an emergency.

Sen. Max Baucus (D.-Mont.), has spearheaded the bipartisan effort to designate $3 billion for "emergency agricultural disaster assistance" to compensate Western farmers for losses incurred over a two-year period due to droughts, floods, freezes and other Biblical calamities.

Yet another scheme surfaced when, in the waning hours before adjourning to campaign, Senate appropriators sought to attach a routine, two-year $2.4-billion extension of something called the "Milk Income Loss Contract Program" to the funding bill for homeland security and designating it an "emergency." This program, which doesn't expire until Sept. 30, 2005, provides taxpayer subsidies to dairy farmers whenever the price of milk dips below an arbitrary price set by Congress. Happily, House leaders quashed this midnight attempt to fleece the taxpayers.

The one bit of good news is that, after unrelenting pressure from House conservatives, congressional leaders insisted that the $3 billion in drought assistance be offset through cuts in another agriculture program--but only gradually over a 10-year period.

As is evident from these examples, emergency appropriations intended to provide assistance to those who have suffered directly from unforeseen natural disasters have evolved into magnets for every spending initiative, special-interest tax loophole, and pork-barrel project imaginable.

But it wasn't always this way. In fact, there was a brief, shining moment during the 1990s when Congress routinely offset the costs of supplemental spending bills with cuts in other, lower priority programs.

In the summer of 1993, Congress considered a $5.7-billion package of emergency disaster aid for the flood-ravaged Midwest. Iowa Republican Jim Nussle, then a young freshman member representing one of the hardest hit districts, led a courageous but ultimately unsuccessful effort to require that all $5.7 billion be offset by cuts to other programs. "My people are suffering today," Nussle said, "but they are also responsible people, people who understand you have to pay your bills."

Almost exactly two years later, Nussle's courageous stand became the norm in the new Republican-controlled Congress. During a heated debate over a package of emergency assistance to the victims of the earthquake in Northridge, Calif., and the terrorist bombing in Oklahoma City, California Republican David Dreier set forth the new credo that "with this new majority, we have made a determination that when we want to provide emergency assistance, we are only going to do it if we find offsets, and that is what we have done here." The disaster package and the accompanying offsets passed easily, with all 231 Republicans and 45 Democrats voting for compassion coupled with responsibility.

That bit of historical perspective is all the more illuminating in light of the effort by dogged Texas Republican Jeb Hensarling on October 6 to offset the $10.9-billion cost of the disaster aid package for the victims of the Florida hurricanes. Hensarling proposed to pay for this relief with an across-the-board spending cut of 3%, exempting only defense, homeland security and veterans' assistance. Cabinet officials would be able to target these reductions on the lowest-performing programs within their agencies. Only 88 House Republicans and one lone Democrat, Mississippi's Gene Taylor, held true to the standard first set forth by the Gingrich Republicans. (Nussle, now the chairman of the House Budget Committee, remained true to his freshman form and voted with Hensarling and his renegade band of fiscal conservatives.)

Congress has punted final action on next year's spending, including final approval or disapproval of the "emergencies" listed above, to a post-election "lame duck" session. The spenders are counting on voters to lose interest after Election Day and miss the inevitable efforts to resurrect these schemes. And if no one watches them, they may very well succeed.

Mr. Franc, who has held a number of positions on Capitol Hill, is vice president of Government Relations at the Heritage Foundation.

About the Author

Michael Franc Distinguished Fellow
Government Studies