“Emergency” Supplementals | Citizens Against Government Waste

“Emergency” Supplementals

The WasteWatcher

“Hope for the best, but plan for the worst” is the approach most Americans try to take when it comes to setting aside funds for a rainy day.  For the government, however, national emergencies, and the supplemental appropriations bills that tend to accompany these emergencies, have become just another excuse to spend money on non-emergency, routine projects and favored pork-barrel items that failed to win funding through the normal appropriations process.

A January 31, 2008 report by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) found that the supplemental appropriations it reviewed between fiscal years 1997 and 2006, which had provided $612 billion in new gross budget authority, represented a five-fold increase over the amount in the previous decade. 

Supplemental bills over the last 10 years have included funds related to events such as the September 11 attack, the global war on terror, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and numerous floods, tornadoes, and hurricanes, including Katrina and Rita.  Emergency supplemental appropriations bills are not subject to the same spending caps and budget controls as normal appropriations.  The costs of supplementals are not counted in official deficit figures but are added to the national debt just like any other spending.

Funds appropriated in supplemental bills also bypass annual or periodic review by Congress.  However, the GAO found that most of the emergency supplementals it reviewed were not used in an appropriate manner, and many of the funding priorities should have been grouped in with the regular appropriations process.  In one example in 2000, “the Coast Guard received $110 million for a Great Lakes Icebreaker replacement in a section of law entitled ‘Kosovo and Other National Security Matters.’”

According to the report, over the 10-year period of review, $710 million was designated as emergency funding despite the fact that its use appeared to be unrelated to the emergency spurring the supplemental.  Additionally, $12 billion was allocated in a manner which was “unclear” as to how it was related to the emergency. 

Perhaps most importantly, the report uncovered a pattern of using the supplemental process to fund selected programs that could and should have been funded through the normal process: “35 accounts received supplemental appropriations in at least 6 out of the 10 years…studied.”  More than one-third of the supplemental appropriations were “available until expended,” meaning that they are not subject to any sort of regular Congressional review.  Evidently, some “unexpected emergencies” are happening on an annual schedule for certain programs.

The report suggested that there should be an increase in supplemental transparency, with a focus on ensuring that the primary use of supplementals is, in fact, emergency funding, and not simply an attempt to bypass the standard appropriations process.  At the very least, it appears that every congressional office needs to upgrade its dictionaries with a more specific definition of the term “emergency.”

Katelynn Eckert