Budget Conferees Should Continue to Resist Attempts to Raise Spending Caps

It’s already been a rough year for spending discipline after the Bipartisan Budget Act (BBA) raised caps by nearly $300 billion for the next two years, and then the Senate killed a rescissions package that would have clawed back a mere $1.3 billion in outlays. Now an appropriations amendment pushed by Senators Patrick Leahy (D-VT) and Richard Shelby (R- AL) would deal another blow to fiscal restraint, with a $20 billion boost to budget caps over the next three years.

Leahy planned to bring up the amendment last Thursday when House and Senate conferees were to hold their first meeting on the “minibus” appropriations package for the Energy and Water, Military Construction and Veterans Affairs, and Legislative Branch Appropriations bills for FY 2019. The conference committee meeting was abruptly canceled when word spread that Leahy would propose higher budget caps.

Although the BBA was an agreement on new, higher spending levels for this year and next, Congress subsequently passed the VA Mission Act of 2018. This law created a permanent Veteran Community Care program and added $46 billion to veterans spending over the next five years. The new program was established in response to the waitlist scandal at the Department of Veterans Affairs. Instead of offsetting the new funding to stay under the established budget caps, the Leahy-Shelby amendment would raise the budget caps by $1.6 billion in 2018, $8.67 billion in 2019, and $9.5 billion in 2020.

The new Leahy-Shelby amendment is at least an improvement from the version they offered to the VA Mission Act. Their original proposal would have carved out a loophole in the budget enforcement caps, allowing for unlimited adjustments for the Community Care program’s costs.

It’s never a good idea to give lawmakers a new avenue to avoid budget discipline. Congress already set up a similar loophole for Overseas Contingency Operations (OCO), which was originally established for funding related to U.S. operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. However, lawmakers have used the OCO account as a “slush fund” for spending unrelated to active military operations precisely because it sidesteps caps on the Pentagon’s base budget.

Rather than adding more fuel to the deficit spending fire, conferees should continue to resist attempts to bust the BBA caps - which have already been raised once this year. Although the stand-alone rescissions package was stopped cold, those savings could be used to offset most of the FY 2019 funding increase. The remaining funding can and should be offset within the budget.