The Data Says Open-Ended Spending Bills Are Common

Let’s start with a little civics lesson: Congress spends money through a two-step process. Spending must first be authorized. That’s called an authorization of appropriations. Then, in a second step, the money is actually appropriated. There are exceptions, but on the whole this is how spending works. Authorizing bills go to authorizing committees, and appropriations bills go to the appropriations committees. When both do their thing, money gets spent. It’s good to keep an eye on.

In our project to generate better data about what Congress is doing, we’ve “marked up” over 80 percent of the bills introduced in Congress so far this year, adding richer and more revealing computer-readable data to the text of bills. That’s over 4,000 of the 5,000-plus bills introduced in Congress since January. We’re to the point where we can learn things.

I was surprised to find just how often the bills that authorize spending leave the amounts open-ended. A recent sample of the bills we’ve marked up includes 428 bills with authorizations of appropriations. Just over 40 percent of them place no limit on how much money will be spent. They say things like “such sums as may be necessary,” leaving entirely to the appropriations committees how much to spend. (There are many bills with both defined amounts and open-ended spending. To be conservative, we treated any bill having limited spending as not unlimited.)

This leads me to two related conclusions. First, authorizations of appropriations being a potential brake on spending, this surprisingly common practice is part of Congress’s fiscal indiscipline. The members of Congress and Senators who introduce such bills and vote to authorize open-ended spending are avoiding their responsibility to determine how much a program is worth to us, the taxpayers.

The second observation is more political science-y: open-ended authorizations are probably a source of the power-skew toward appropriators in Congress. If an agency doesn’t have to go back to its authorizing committee asking for money, it’s going to be less responsive to that committee. Instead, the agency will dote on the appropriators, serving them whatever information they need and showing authorizers relative disinterest. If my theory is correct—and it’s worth more careful study—you can blame authorizers, who often complain about the powerful appropriators, for giving away their power.

Looking at this information through the lens of politics, you learn some things that are important but not surprising. Democrats introduce spending bills far more than Republicans. In our sample, Democrats introduced bills that authorize spending more than four times as often as Republicans (349 D bills (81.5 percent) to 79 R (18.5 percent)). The difference is even more acute in the Senate, where Democrat-introduced spending bills outnumber Republican bills 120 to 16. House Democrats have introduced 229 spending bills to Republicans’ 63.

As far as the bills with unlimited spending, the results are interesting, too. Congress-wide, Democrats have introduced 149 open-ended bills (85.1 percent) and Republicans 26 (14.9 percent). In the House its 90 D (82.6 percent) to 19 R (17.4 percent), and in the Senate it’s 59 D (89.4 percent) to 7 R (10.6 percent). Democrats’ clear proclivity to introduce spending bills is joined by a further lean toward open-ended spending bills.

There is certainly much more to learn about this practice and its effect on congressional decision-making. If you’re interested in who is introducing the bills, what committees they’re going to, and so on, that’s all in the data. We’re actively looking for people who can put the data to use, answering intersting questions like these and increasing the public’s ability to oversee the government.