Romina Boccia and Dominik Lett
Within weeks of passing new discretionary spending limits, Congress is proposing to increase deficits by abusing emergency designations to prop up agency budgets.
The May Fiscal Responsibility Act established caps on discretionary funding, but provided an exception for spending designated as “emergency.” And now the leaders of the Senate Appropriations Committee have said they plan on going around debt ceiling caps by adding $8 billion for defense and $5.7 billion for non‐defense emergencies.
Is the added spending really for emergencies?
Let’s look at the Commerce, Justice, and Science (CJS) appropriations bill to see whether its $2.4 billion in emergency spending really is urgent and disaster‐related.
Science and technology
The Commerce, Justice, and Science appropriations bill (S.2321) provides $1.2 billion of emergency spending for science and technology agencies (see Table 1). Of that total, the National Space and Aeronautics Administration (NASA) receives $296 million for infrastructure and compliance with environmental regulations—70 percent of NASA’s entire budget for construction and environmental compliance. The National Science Foundation receives a whopping $420 million for unspecified “research.”
Building vehicles, constructing new facilities, and doing research are all well within the purview of normal operations for scientific agencies. Federally funded mission research, like that done by the National Science Foundation, has a long and useful history, but it is not without its limitations. Federal research and development subsidies can crowd out private R&D, leading to worse returns on investment. Congress should justify spending taxpayer dollars that could be more productively used in the private sector, especially if designating them for emergencies, which allows for spending in excess of agreed‐upon cap levels.
Law enforcement and criminal justice
Law enforcement receives nearly $1 billion in emergency spending (see Table 2)—half of that is for the broad category of “salaries and expenses.” All funding for local and state law enforcement grants for presidential nominating conventions—a full $100 million—is designated as emergency spending. Likewise, 86 percent of infrastructure funding for federal prisons—$179 million—is designated as emergency spending.
None of these line items are unexpected, sudden, or temporary. Salaries, expenses, and recurring predictable events like presidential nominations fall within normal budgetary operations. Law enforcement agencies deserve the same funding scrutiny that other agencies receive. For FY24, Senate appropriators plan on providing $38 billion to federal law enforcement agencies. Most of the year‐to‐year spending increases for law enforcement were provided through the abuse of emergency designations. If law enforcement requires additional resources, Congress should provide these through regular appropriations.
The Economic Development Administration (EDA) receives $25 million in emergency spending. EDA’s track record of poor performance merits spending cuts, not increases. As Cato’s Chris Edwards argues, “Federal funding of local projects is inefficient for many reasons, and it is not affordable given ongoing federal deficits of more than $1.5 trillion a year.”
Congress is supposed to first authorize programs and then appropriate taxpayer dollars. Increasingly, Congress skips the first part, reducing oversight and allowing for more wasteful spending. EDA’s authorization lapsed in 2008, yet Congress plans to spend $1.4 billion for FY24 on it. EDA is a ripe target for elimination. If Congress chooses to continue funding its operations, it should first re‐authorize it and then fund it with regular appropriations.
Reject unwarranted emergency spending
Escape valves for urgent, sudden needs are necessary for statutory spending limits to operate effectively. However, abuse of emergency spending to prop up agency budgets, as Senate appropriators are proposing, undermines trust in the federal government’s fiscal commitments and contributes to a worsening fiscal trajectory.
A wide range of promising reforms are available to address the abuse of emergencies. One such option: notional emergency spending accounts. Using a similar mechanism as CUTGO, Congress could account for emergency spending and offset it, reducing future abuse, increasing transparency, and strengthening fiscal responsibility. Tracking emergency spending (and associated interest costs) and reducing discretionary limits over the following five years would deter irresponsible emergency spending and incentivize forward‐looking budgetary planning.
Emergency designations are a mechanism to avoid the difficult but important process of considering budgetary trade‐offs. They evade spending limits, reducing oversight, promoting waste, and contributing to America’s growing debt crisis. In 2018, a pre‐pandemic Congress produced the same appropriation bill without a single emergency designation. Congress is capable of budgeting more responsibly. Legislators should reject unjustified and unnecessary emergency spending.