Most people would regard $39 million as a serious amount of money. It would take the typical Missouri household 686 years to earn that much.
But $39 million must look like chump change to most members of Congress. After all, they’ve voted to blow through their self-imposed budget rules by spending that amount every year — on just one of many programs in the big funding bill that passed last week.
The provision in question boosted the maximum allowable Pell Grant award for college students to $5,035 per year. It’s “only” a $100 increase, but it will wind up boosting the annual cost of grant program by $39 million — not just for this fiscal year, but for every year hereafter. Worse, due to a budgetary technicality, that extra downstream spending won’t count as new “spending” in the future. (Weird, I know, but remember this is Washington.)
In essence, what appears on the books as a one-time, $39 million expenditure is actually at 10-year, $390 million increase. Of that amount, $351 million won’t count toward spending limits. This is how budgets get busted.
The excess spending didn’t have to be open-ended.
Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., chairs the appropriations subcommittee in charge of education programs, which includes Pell Grants. He could have supported an amendment from Sen. Mike Enzi, R-Wyo., that would have accepted the fiscal year 2019 increase, but not have allowed the downstream spending.
But, Sen. Blunt chose not to. Instead, he defended the increase as “in line with the kind of increases we have had now for the last 12 years in a row.” This is an odd response to breaking budget rules, but he is not incorrect. Congress used the same approach last time round, to push Pell Grant costs $482 million past the caps.
It should go without saying that busting the budget in one year is no excuse for busting it the next.
The budget gimmicks don’t stop with Pell Grant funding. The same bill overseen by Sen. Blunt also contains $7.7 billion in fake spending cuts called “changes in mandatory programs.” What actually happened is the bill traded reductions in funds that will never be spent for real spending increases elsewhere.
It’s a popular gambit across the budgetary board. Once lawmakers complete all fiscal year 2019 spending bills, it is expected that they will have steered $15 billion in unused funds to “new” uses. That’s more than the combined annual income of everyone living in the city of St. Louis — money that could have been used to reduce the deficit.
Exceeding approved spending caps would perhaps be a little understandable if those limits were really severe. However, the two-year spending deal passed in February raised those limits by $153 billion for the upcoming fiscal year. That’s more than the total annual income of everyone in in the 11-county greater St. Louis metro area. Both Sens. Blunt and Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., enthusiastically voted for the massive spending increase.
The deal itself was yet another instance of Congress’ chronic inability to prioritize the country’s needs. Agreeing to sky-high spending caps lets members of Congress “buy” virtually everything they want, rather than focus on those things — such as national defense — which Washington, and only Washington, can supply.
Across-the-board largesse may be a winning re-election ploy, but it’s lousy fiscal policy. As Nobel Prize-winning economist Milton Friedman noted in a 2004 interview: “If I spend somebody else’s money on somebody else, I’m not concerned about how much it is, and I’m not concerned about what I get.”
Irresponsible congressional spending will leave taxpayers stuck with a trillion-dollar federal deficit next year. And deficits are projected to increase every year after that.
We didn’t get to this situation with a single bad decision. We got here because of hundreds of choices that have been made to ignore costs, ignore fiscal reality, and put as much as possible on the nation’s credit card. Congress has consistently chosen to support a federal government that spends far more than it takes in and far more than it should. The bill for these choices will come due soon enough.
This piece originally appeared in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch