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Emergency Spending Is Still Spending

by Nan Swift / /

And we can’t afford it.

So far in 2017, taxpayers have shelled out an extra $59.35 billion outside the normal appropriations process. Referred to as “supplementals,” these are extra funds that don’t count toward the 2011 Budget Control Act’s caps or typical requirements to “pay for” spending. Early this year it was $15 billion on top of an already bloated defense budget for the Overseas Contingency Operations account to buy things the Pentagon never even requested. Since then, there have been two rounds of emergency funding, for a combined $44.35 billion, in response to the wave of natural disasters around the country, including hurricanes, flooding, and massive wildfires.

When the first tranche of disaster supplemental spending was being considered in Congress, NTU stated:

It has been the long-standing position of National Taxpayers Union that emergency disaster spending should be offset by commensurate cuts elsewhere in the federal budget. We agree that at times it is necessary for the federal government to assist in recovery efforts when communities are faced with significant natural disasters. These tasks can be extremely broad in scope, as well as extremely costly.

However, it is equally important to adhere to fiscally responsible principles in order to avoid increasing the deficit, accruing more debt, and exacerbating the harmful effects of such tragedies. A lack of restraint would impose a serious strain on our economy and long-term prosperity.

And again, earlier this month when Congress took up an additional $36.5 billion in un-offset disaster-related spending, we warned: “This ‘buy-now, pay later’ model for disaster response fails both the communities affected and taxpayers. Unnecessarily increasing our debt without serious deliberation only hastens an economic disaster.”

We’re not here to debate the merits of federal disaster assistance. Our primary concern - and what turns a natural disaster into an economic disaster - is this troubling habit of adding billions and billions to our already out-of-control $20.4 trillion national debt. Whether the spending is on-budget or off, emergency or non, it should be offset with commensurate cuts elsewhere.

By totally ignoring the effect supplementals have on the federal ledger, lawmakers act as though this isn’t real money that must come out of the pockets of current or future American taxpayers. Indeed, the very scope of these figures - in the tens of billions - is hard for most Americans to comprehend.

It might help to put these numbers in context.

This is a chart of non-defense discretionary spending for fiscal year 2016. These are all the big agencies, apart from the Pentagon (which would dwarf everything else on the chart by several orders of magnitude), such as the Department of Education, Veterans Affairs, the State Department. The gray bars represent the top ten largest agencies in terms of budget. The red bars are the un-offset, supplemental spending bills that Congress has passed this year.

The most-recently passed disaster spending bill, if it were its own agency, would rank just ahead of the Department of Housing and Urban Development. The total supplemental spending so far this year would be the fourth largest non-defense agency, right after the Department of Education!

Or, put another way, the total supplemental spending so far this year is more than the departments of the Interior, NASA, and Agriculture...COMBINED.

As you can see, while it’s often critical to bring federal resources to bear in emergency or security situations, foreign or domestic, it’s equally critical to be mindful of just how much money we’re really talking about here. And how much we’re adding to our already crippling debt.

Congress - and taxpayers - can’t ignore these massive numbers. It’s common knowledge that yet-another supplemental package will soon be up for consideration. Because we can anticipate this spending, it’s all the more important for lawmakers for take the time they have now to work through appropriate offsets, as well as reforms that could help those in need now and reduce risk in the future.