The WasteWatcher: The Staff Blog of Citizens Against Government Waste

The Ongoing Farce of the “Emergency Supplementals”

The WasteWatcher is the staff blog of Citizens Against Government Waste (CAGW) and the Council for Citizens Against Government Waste (CCAGW). For questions, contact blog@cagw.org.


As the House of Representatives rushed to finish legislative business in advance of the Memorial Day recess, the fate of the Fiscal Year (FY) 2010Supplemental Appropriations Bill was pushed off until lawmakers returnon June 8.  The bill allocates $37.5 billion to support ongoing war efforts in Afghanistan and Iraq.  Unfortunately, it also piles on tens of billions of dollars in additional funding for dozens of non-emergency items, all of which add to the $1.56 trillion annual deficit and the national debt, which topped $13 trillion on May 25, 2010, according to the Congressional Budget Office.

So-called emergency supplemental bills, which are viewed by lawmakers and presidents as must-pass legislation and a golden opportunity to slip pet projects into the funding stream, have, over the last decade, become vessels for billions in non-germane, non-emergency spending, and this bill is no exception. 

The administration’s request was originally $63 billion for war funding and disaster relief.  Congress is adding $23 billion for local school districts to forestall the layoffs of elementary andsecondary school teachers; another $5.7 billion to meet what is described as an “unanticipatedshortfall in the Pell Grant program” (it is astoundingthat Pell Grant budget administrators could have been off by almost $6 billion in their estimated needs for the year, but the program has been plagued with management weaknesses, waste, and fraud for many years); another $2.7 million for the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission, tasked to investigate the causes of the recent financial crisis, a useless expenditure since the House and Senate have already acted on financial reform without the benefit of the commission’s wisdom; and another $58.5 million for the rehabilitation of Coast Guard aircraft, among other items.  Under the heading of “Other Security and Urgent Needs,” the supplemental seeks another $172.8 million for rural loans and $180 million for energy loans to be split evenly between nuclear and renewable energy programs.

Emergency supplemental spending bills are two kinds of spending vehicles which have, over the years, become conflated.  Emergency spending is usually designated as such by the executive branch, is not subject to the constraints of the federal budget resolution and is not meant to compete for funds.  Supplemental spending, on the other hand, is supposed to be subject to budget constraints.  According to a January, 2008 Government Accountability Office (GAO) report, even though Congress has established specific criteria for what can be designated as emergency spending within a supplemental spending bill, members simply choose not to enforce their own rules. 

Essentially, emergency supplementals have become shadow spending pathsfunding all sorts of operations, many of which are not urgent or unanticipated, outside normal budget rules and without appropriate levels of scrutiny and oversight.The GAO reported that, over a ten-year period from 1997 through 2006, it found a five-fold increase in spending through emergency supplementals.  Some federal programs are routinely funded through the emergency spending measures. 

Rampant earmarking is only one example of the extraordinary lengths to which members of Congress will go to hide spending and remove it from oversight.  The Obama administration and its allies in Congress have also decided to forego even the formality of passing a budget resolution this year.  The systematic abuse of emergency spending bills is yet another step in the degradation of the federal budget process.  It is chaotic and dishonest. 

Ironically, as both the administration and members of Congress have blathered on incessantly about increased transparency and accountability, the more they have corruptedthe process itself.  In a now-infamous statement captured on YouTube during the healthcare debate in March, Rep. Alcee Hastings (D-Fla.) expressed in an unfiltered, blunt manner what is occurring on Capitol Hill when he said “When the deal goes down, all this talk about rules, we make ‘em up as we go along.”  Taxpayers will pay a heavy price for this fiscal anarchy. 

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