Watchdog group finds omnibus overspent caps by $108 billion

Watchdog group finds omnibus overspent caps by $108 billion
© Greg Nash

The $1.3 trillion omnibus package Congress passed last week included $108 billion in spending above the caps that Democrats and Republicans set in their February budget deal, according to an analysis by the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, a watchdog group. 

The February deal allowed the government to exceed previous limits on discretionary spending by $143 billion — $80 billion for defense and $63 billion for non defense categories.

The actual spending bill approved last week, however, actually increased spending by an additional $108 billion — or $251 billion above the previous caps, according to the new analysis.

It did so through a few budget maneuvers.

Congress allocated $78 billion for Overseas Contingency Operations (OCO), a fund originally created to fund the global war on terror. Because OCO funds don't apply to budget caps, budget watchers say Congress has frequently used it as a “slush fund” for projects that don't fit under budget caps.

Congress also made a swap of discretionary spending for mandatory spending to disguise some of the extra expenditures.

It did so through a process called CHIMPs, or Changes in Mandatory Programs, which allow lawmakers to cut some mandatory spending as a way of offsetting discretionary increases. But Congress has an array of gimmicks it can use to make those swaps without actually reducing expenditures, and used them in the omnibus to add some $17 billion in spending. 

The watchdog group said this was done in a way to make it appear the bill was saving money.

“While there is nothing wrong with swapping mandatory spending for discretionary spending in theory, the reality is that nearly all of these CHIMPs represented phony spending cuts,” the group wrote in its analysis.

By tucking more spending into disaster relief programs ($9 billion) and rejiggering $4 billion of other mandatory spending and revenue programs, Congress in the end added $108 billion worth of spending that was outside the February budget caps, the analysis said.

The new spending bill and separate tax legislation approved last year are expected to add greatly to the deficit, pushing annual deficits past $1 trillion by 2019.

Last year, before the new tax and spending bills were approved, the Congressional Budget Office estimated that U.S. debt was on course to hit 150 percent of gross domestic product by 2047, well over its historical peak at the end of World War II.