The Constitution gives Congress the power of the purse, but it
does not lay out a specific spending process to follow. The current
budget process is an amalgamation of many laws and rules. Some of
these rules--such as the budget resolution, spending caps, and
"Pay-As-You-Go"--were designed to impose fiscal discipline and
spending restraint on Congress. Unfortunately, the arcane budget
process includes a number of loopholes that Members exploit to get
around these restrictions.
Democratic leaders are expected to unveil an omnibus
appropriations bill that would fund most of the federal government
for the remainder of fiscal year 2008. With its price tag expected
to be nearly $1 trillion, taxpayers should keep an eye on Congress
and a hand on their wallets. The following is a list of budget
gimmicks that Congress has traditionally used to create billions of
dollars in extra spending, exceed official budget figures, and
evade budget caps.
Advance Appropriations. Also called "forward funding,"
advance appropriations provide spending for a future fiscal year.
This spending is counted against neither the current year's budget
caps nor the next year's. It has covered everything from housing
vouchers to education programs like Head Start. Lawmakers often
defend the latter by asserting that some schools operate on a
different fiscal year than the federal government. Yet, even the
Department of Education has refuted this justification.
Emergencies. If Congress declares certain spending an
"emergency," it is not counted against budget caps. Such spending
is rarely in response to true emergencies. Usually, it is for
predictable expenses or is the result of congressional neglect.
Recent items designated "emergencies" by Congress include $4.5
billion to conduct the decennial census, $100 million for
presidential conventions that occur every four years, and billions
of dollars in annual farm subsidies.
Piggy Bank Raids. Every year, the Office of Management
and Budget conducts an audit to identify money that was
appropriated in prior years but was never spent. Its most recent
audit claimed between $22 billion and $40 billion is available to
save or spend. Congress usually dips into that piggy bank
to create new recurring expenses that are not counted against
budget caps. Congress then has to find new ways to continue that
spending in subsequent years.
Delayed Expenses. For large payments to contractors or
vendors due by the end of the fiscal year (September 30), Congress
often delays payment until October 1--the next fiscal year. That
lets Congress "save" money in the current year but at the cost of
having to double up on expenses for the next year.
Pork. Outsiders call them pork projects; insiders call
them earmarks or special projects. The number of these projects
peaked at 13,492 in 2005. Although Congress and the White House
have pledged to cut that number in half, this year's House spending
bills designated 6,651 pork projects, and the Senate added another
Chart: Congress Brushes Off $20 Billion as 'Table
Ernest Istook is a
Distinguished Fellow at The Heritage Foundation and served for 14
years in Congress and as a member of the House Appropriations