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.