TCS Daily

The 'Emergency' Loophole

By Veronique de Rugy - April 19, 2006 12:00 AM

Politicians are crying crocodile tears about deficit spending but their actions demonstrate that they remain addicted to big government. The latest example is a $106.5 billion Senate supplemental spending package.

The stated purpose of this latest round of supplemental funding was to support the Department of Defense operations in Iraq and the Department of Homeland Security. According to President Bush, "the funds support US Armed Forces and Coalition partners [...] fight the terrorists and insurgents," and "unanticipated needs to help relieve human suffering associated with a number of humanitarian crises." Senate appropriators approved the bill after adding $15 billion over the President's request.

But many of the projects will not even to be spent in Iraq or in the region devastated by Katrina. For instance:

  • $400,000 for the Pappajohn Higher Education Center in Des Moines, Iowa;
  • $250,000 for the University of Vermont Small Enterprise Research Initiative;
  • $200,000 for the Genesis of Innovation in Rapid City, South Dakota;
  • $500,000 for the Wisconsin Security Research Consortium,
  • $500,000 for the Rowan University Technology Center and Business Incubator;
  • $1,500,000 for the Vermont Center for Emerging Technologies;
  • $820,000 for the Central Michigan University Center for Applied Research and Technology;
  • $1,100,000 for the University of Arkansas' Research and Technology Park;
  • $600,000 for the Maryland Technology Development Corporation for the Minority R&D Initiative;
  • $200,000 for the University of Nevada Las Vegas to study and operate the international air trade show;
  • $250,000 for the Oregon Department of Consumer and Business Services' One-Stop Permitting Portal and much more.

One wonders what $3.9 billion for farm and rancher subsidies or $594 million for highway projects unrelated to the Gulf Coast have to do with the war or hurricane relief. The bill also contains $700 million to move a perfectly functioning rail line a couple of miles to allow private developers build a casino where the line is now.

To make matter worse, a number of floor amendments are awaiting Senators to return from Spring break hoping to add billions in milk subsidies, VA health care and more coastal restoration.

How did these spending abuses get so bad? At the heart of the problem is the concept of an emergency supplemental bill. Under the Budget Enforcement Act of 1990, emergency spending bills are given special exceptions from budgetary rules. And even though there are no limitations on the amount or type of spending that can be designated an emergency requirement, there has been an understanding that emergencies are:

1) sudden, urgent, unforeseen, and temporary; and
2) events posing a threat to life, property, or national security.

But for years now, Congress has abused its power in funding emergency spending bills, and their number and size have drastically increased in the last 20 years. According to the Congressional Research Service, such "emergencies" have recently reached an all time high, with FY2004 and FY2005 -- respectively $115.6 and $170.8 billion -- accounting for 62 percent of the emergency spending of the last 10 years. The White House also deserves a lot of blame, particularly since costs for Iraq and Afghanistan are not now exactly unexpected emergency outlays and thus should be part of the annual budget request.

But both the Administration and Congress prefer the fiction of using the "emergency" loophole. These bills have become a magnet for pork and other projects that wouldn't be funded on their own merits.

Veronique de Rugy is a Resident Fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.


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