Tag: Appropriations

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.

Congress Spends Your Tax Dollars on a National ID

It’s appropriations season! – that wonderful time of year when the House and Senate pass competing versions of legislation to fund government agencies, bureaus, and…whatever pork and pet projects they can squeeze in.

Congress has made most of its spending decisions over the past few years through last-minute continuing resolutions or consolidated appropriations bills. That makes it harder to follow the money (which may be part of the reason they’ve been doing it that way), but it’s important to watch the dollars because some of that money is going toward national ID systems and biometrics.

Last week the House passed their FY 2014 Department of Homeland Security appropriations bill. As in years past, the legislation contains funding for three of everyone’s favorite identification programs: REAL ID, E-Verify, and US-VISIT/the Office of Biometric Identity Management (OBIM), a DHS office covering biometrics for travelers at airports, ports, and other points of entry.

For the coming fiscal year, the House appropriated $114 million for E-Verify, $232 million for OBIM, and $1.2 billion for the State Homeland Security Grant Program (SHSGP), from which grants for REAL ID implementation get doled out to states.

These numbers are consistent with past levels of appropriations for these programs, with the exception of REAL ID, which had its own funding stream until it was folded into SHSGP in fiscal 2012.

Entitlement Spending Is America’s Biggest Fiscal Challenge, but Discretionary Spending Is Still Far too High

If America descends into Greek-style fiscal chaos, there’s no doubt that entitlement programs will be the main factor. Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, and Disability are all fiscal train wrecks today, and the long-run outlook for these programs is frightful.

Just look at these numbers from the Bank for International Settlements and OECD to see how our fiscal future is bleaker than many of Europe’s welfare states.

Simply stated, if we don’t implement the right kind of entitlement reform, our children and grandchildren at some point will curse our memory.

But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t worry about other parts of the budget, including the so-called discretionary programs that also have been getting bigger and bigger budgets over time.

That’s why I want to add some additional analysis to Veronique de Rugy’s recent piece in National Review Online, which might lead some to mistakenly conclude that these programs are “shrinking” and being subject to a “Big Squeeze.”

…there is another number to look at in that budget. It’s the shrinking share of the budget consumed by discretionary spending (spending on things like defense and infrastructure) to make space for mandatory spending and interest. This is the Big Squeeze. …in FY 2014 mandatory spending plus interest will eat up 67 percent of the budget, leaving discretionary spending with 33 percent of the budget (down from 36 percent in FY 2012). Now by FY 2023, mandatory and interest spending will consume 77 percent of the total budget. Discretionary spending will be left with 23 percent of the budget.

She’s right that discretionary spending is becoming a smaller share of the budget, but it’s important to realize that this is solely because entitlement outlays are growing faster than discretionary spending.

Here’s some data from the Historical Tables of the Budget, showing what is happening to spending for both defense discretionary and domestic discretionary. And these are inflation-adjusted numbers, so the we’re looking at genuine increases in spending.

Discretionary Spending FY62-14

As you can see, defense outlays have climbed by about $100 billion over the past 50 years, while outlays for domestic discretionary programs have more than tripled.

If that’s a “Big Squeeze,” I’m hoping that my household budget experiences a similar degree of “shrinking”!

Veronique obviously understands these numbers, of course, and is simply making the point that politicians presumably should have an incentive to restrain entitlement programs so they have more leeway to also buy votes with discretionary spending.

But I’d hate to think that an uninformed reader would jump to the wrong conclusion and decide we need more discretionary spending.

Particularly since the federal government shouldn’t be spending even one penny for many of the programs and department that are part of the domestic discretionary category. Should there be a federal Department of Transportation? A federal Department of Housing and Urban Development? A federal Department of Agriculture?

No, NO, and Hell NO. I could continue, but you get the idea.

The burden of federal government spending in the United States is far too high and it should be reduced. That includes discretionary spending and entitlement spending.

P.S. For those who don’t have the misfortune of following the federal budget, “entitlements” are programs that are “permanently appropriated,” which simply means that spending automatically changes in response to factors such as eligibility rules, demographic shifts, inflation, and program expansions. Sometimes these programs (such as Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, etc) are referred to as “mandatory spending.”

The other big part of the budget is “discretionary spending” or “appropriations.” These are programs funded by annual spending bills from the Appropriations Committees, often divided into the two big categories of “defense discretionary” and “nondefense discretionary.”

Will the CR Delay ObamaCare?

Rep. Nita Lowey (D-NY) fears it will:

Lowey Statement on 2013 Continuing Resolution

Congresswoman Nita Lowey, Ranking Democrat on the House Appropriations Committee, today delivered the following statement on the House floor regarding the FY2013 Continuing Resolution and Defense and Military Construction/VA Appropriations bills:

Mr. Speaker, the bill before us contains a defense bill and a military construction/Veterans Affairs bill adjusting the FY 2012 funding levels to meet FY 2013 needs. It is unacceptable that federal agencies and departments covered by the 10 remaining bills would be forced to operate under full-year continuing resolutions based on plans and spending levels enacted 15-18 months ago.

Congress’ failure to do our jobs and pass responsible, annual spending bills limits our ability to respond to changing circumstances, implement other laws enacted by Congress, and eliminate funding that is no longer necessary.

Specifically, this bill will delay implementation of the Affordable Care Act, scheduled to begin enrolling participants in October. Without IT infrastructure to process enrollments and payments, verify eligibility and establish call centers, health insurance for millions of Americans could be further delayed.

But wait. The Obama administration says ObamaCare will roll out on schedule. Does Lowey know something?

Defund REAL ID

Lots of other stories have dominated the headlines lately, so people have paid little attention to news that House and Senate leaders have settled on a plan to fund the government for the first half of fiscal 2013 through a continuing resolution.

Senator Reid’s press release states that the agreement “will avoid a government shutdown while funding the government at $1.047 trillion.” If only that were true. The president’s most recent budget estimates that federal outlays will be something more like $3.8 trillion.

Whatever the case on the total figures, this is a good time to be asking just what will be in that six-month extension of government funding. And I’m particularly interested in whether it will continue to fund our national ID law, the REAL ID Act.

Not being a dialed-in appropriations lobbyist, all I have to go on are the proposals for Department of Homeland Security spending that the House and Senate have put together. Those proposals are H.R. 5855, the Department of Homeland Security Appropriations Act, 2013, and S. 3216, the Department of Homeland Security Appropriations Act, 2013. Both bills spend about $450 per U.S. family on the operations of the DHS.

Poring through the bills and committee reports, I find REAL ID funding in a pot of over $1.7 billion administered by FEMA in its “State Homeland Security Grant Program.” The House Appropriations Committee says the money should be divided among many different programs “according to threat, vulnerability, and consequence, at the discretion of the Secretary of Homeland Security.” Considering what little REAL ID does for security, the Secretary could zero out REAL ID. But this is unlikely to happen.

I find no mention of REAL ID in the Senate bill, though there is a similar pot of money that I assume might fund REAL ID implementation in the states. Precious dollars that local bureaucrats feel utterly obligated to chase after.

With REAL ID funding becoming an also-ran in the world of homeland security grants, its long, slow decline continues. But I have no capacity to calculate the amounts going to REAL ID implementation. That’s nicely hidden in the opacity and arcana of federal government grant-making.

Were I asked what to put in the upcoming continuing resolution, I would simplify things dramatically. I would recommend that REAL ID be stripped from the “State Homeland Security Grant Program.” Zeroed out. Nada. Nothing. In fact, I would add REAL ID to the cluster of Provided’s and Provided further’s that make appropriations bills so hard to read:

Provided further, that no funds shall be used to implement section 204 of the REAL ID Act of 2005 (49 U.S.C. 30301 note).

The country rejects having a national ID. The government is under tight budgetary constraints. The policy that kills two birds with one stone is to entirely defund the national ID law, barring any federal expenditures on its implementation. If Congress can’t see fit to repeal the law, the DHS can issue another blanket extension early next year when a new faux implementation deadline for the national ID law arrives.

Economic Development Administration—Telling Votes in the House

My colleague Sallie James reported this morning on the looming vote in the House to reauthorize the Export-Import Bank. There are two other votes, which could come as soon as this evening, that would provide a similar indication of how serious the Republican-controlled House is about limiting government and supporting free markets.

An amendment to the House’s fiscal 2013 Commerce, Justice, and Science appropriations bill (H.R. 5326) introduced by Rep. Mike Pompeo (R-KS) would eliminate funding for the Economic Development Administration. An amendment introduced by Rep. Mike Michaud (D-ME) would give the EDA an additional $38 million. The House bill appropriates $219 million for the EDA, which is the same amount that President Obama requested.

It’s bad enough that the House Appropriations Committee wants to continue funding this relic of the “Great Society” at any level. However, the appropriations committees are a lost cause regardless of which party is in control. Thus, how the entire Republican House caucus votes on these two amendments will be the more important—and telling—story.

See this Cato essay for background on the Economic Development Administration.

Biennial Budgeting: Baloney Budget Reform

I don’t recall ever agreeing with the left-liberal Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP), but their new paper on the drawbacks of the federal government switching to biennial budgeting is a good read. Congressional Republicans, including House Budget Committee chairman Paul Ryan (R-WI) and Senate Budget Committee ranking member Jeff Sessions (R-AL), are the chief proponents of switching to a biennial budget cycle. By providing (qualified) support to the CBPP paper, I’m hoping to demonstrate to would-be GOP naysayers that criticism of biennial budgeting isn’t confined to one area of the ideological spectrum.

I don’t agree with everything in the paper and I don’t share some of the authors’ concerns, but here are three solid points that the paper makes:

  • In 1940, 44 states practiced biennial budgeting. Currently, only nineteen do. In addition, larger states typically have an annual budget cycle. The authors correctly ask, “if large state governments find that biennial budgeting is not the best approach given the responsibilities they shoulder, is it likely to prove appropriate for an entity with the far more extensive domestic and international responsibilities of the U.S. government?”
  • The authors call the claims made by proponents that biennial budgeting will free up more time for oversight “overstated.” Authorizing committees can conduct oversight anytime they want. The appropriation committees conduct oversight when they review agency budget requests each year. What’s the benefit of having oversight conducted by the appropriations committees every two years?  (For the record, I think the value of congressional oversight is overstated for public choice reasons, but I’ll play along for today.)
  • The authors explain what I consider to be the fatal flaw with biennial budgeting:

The desire of many lawmakers to rein in such supplemental appropriations and reassert meaningful control over all annually appropriated funds — and the practice the Obama Administration has followed of including war funding within the regular defense appropriations bill, which has improved budget transparency — would become much harder to fulfill if biennial budgeting were implemented. It is not possible for Congress effectively to plan ahead for unexpected needs in the second year of a biennium. Large supplemental appropriations to meet such needs outside of the two-year budget plan would almost certainly become a regular part of the budget process and could further erode budget controls and accountability.

(Note: A recent paper from Cato adjunct scholar Veronique de Rugy explains that supplemental appropriations are already a problem.)

As a former budget official in a state that uses biennial budgeting, I just don’t understand what congressional Republicans think they’re going to accomplish. The cynic in me thinks that at least part of the support stems from the unwillingness of most Republicans to get specific on what they’d eliminate from the federal budget. Like the Balanced Budget Amendment, I think a lot of Republicans are simply using biennial budgeting as political cover.

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