Politics & Policy

The Disaster-Spending Battle Returns

Republicans consider using budget gimmicks to keep spending down.

Though the “supercommittee,” which has until November 23 to produce a plan to reduce the deficit by $1.2 trillion over ten years, has garnered most of the headlines, there is another spending showdown brewing on Capitol Hill.

After more than two years of funding the government with temporary spending resolutions — a result of the Democratic Senate’s unprecedented failure to pass a budget — Congress is finally getting back to something resembling the normal appropriations process. The debt-ceiling deal passed in August set discretionary-spending levels for fiscal year 2012, by which Congress must now abide.

#ad#That top-line figure — $1.043 trillion — constitutes a $900 billion cut over ten years with last year’s discretionary spending used as the baseline, but has many House conservatives in dismay. They are hesitant to accept anything beyond the House-passed budget authored by budget chairman Paul Ryan (R., Wis.), which set FY2012 spending at $1.019 trillion. Even that, they argue, is a compromise compared with the $978 billion set out in the budget proposal from the conservative Republican Study Committee.

But that’s not all that is rankling House conservatives.

Last month, a dispute between the House and Senate over emergency disaster-relief funding for the Federal Emergency Management Agency brought the government to the brink of a shutdown. Lawmakers ultimately agreed on a short-term funding bill — not resolving the dispute over emergency funding, but rather kicking it down the road. That bill expires November 18, at which point the debate could once again threaten a government shutdown.

House GOP leadership is considering adding between $7 billion and $11 billion in emergency funding on top of the $1.043 trillion cap set by the debt-ceiling legislation (the Budget Control Act). Because of the “emergency” designation, it would not count toward the cap. This has House conservatives, many of whom voted against the Budget Control Act, up in arms. They are not pleased at the prospect of having to explain to their constituents why Congress is poised to spend even more money than was agreed to — in what they viewed to be a raw deal in the first place. Furthermore, if Congress decides to spend $11 billion on top of the agreed-upon cap, it would mean that the government would have higher discretionary spending in FY2012 than the $1.050 trillion allocated last year. “That’s a big problem for a lot of conservatives,” says one House GOP aide. That is especially true of freshman members who feel they were elected to change the course of spending in Washington.

The Republican leadership has sought to assuage such concerns by pointing out that they are simply abiding by the terms of the Budget Control Act, which exempts emergency funding (as well as spending on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan) from the annual budget caps.

#page#On a positive note, the act also contained several Republican-authored reforms to the process by which emergency spending is allocated. The emergency designation has been routinely abused by both parties as a way to spend above and beyond the confines of the normal budget process. The reforms in the debt-ceiling deal include a much stricter definition of what constitutes an “emergency,” limiting such spending to legitimate disasters that are truly unforeseen (unlike, for example, the 2010 decennial census, which received more than $200 million in “emergency” funding). Additionally, the Budget Control Act scrapped the ad hoc process by which such spending has been approved in the past, and limits the amount of emergency funding in a given year to no more than the annual average over the past ten years. The Congressional Budget Office has calculated that figure to be $11.3 billion for this year. But as one House aide points out, that figure is a cap, meaning Congress could always allocate less.

#ad#At the same time, Republicans are still reeling from last month’s spending showdown, in which they failed to pass their own short-term resolution on the first try. Following that vote, some members expressed regret over having voted against the leadership, and acknowledged that a split GOP conference gave Democrats more leverage with which to demand concessions — meaning more spending, the very thing Republican dissenters were protesting. Republicans swiftly moved to pass a slightly amended version, and GOP sources tell National Review Online they are hopeful that the message, with an emphasis on unity, has sunk in. Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy (R., Calif.) continues to hold “listening sessions” with members in an effort to explain the many intricate and often convoluted aspects of the budget process, which for many new members is a source of great frustration. They didn’t come here to play by the rules.

It remains to be seen how the situation will play out next week when the House returns from recess, but with expectations for the supercommittee diminishing by the day, the outcome of this spending fight could end up being more controversial and less predictable.

— Andrew Stiles is the Franklin Center’s 2011 Thomas L. Rhodes Journalism Fellow.

EDITOR’S NOTE: This piece has been amended since its original posting.

Andrew Stiles — Andrew Stiles is a political reporter for National Review Online. He previously worked at the Washington Free Beacon, and was an intern at The Hill newspaper. Stiles is a 2009 ...

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