Democrats sidestep budget deal by seeking $250B in emergency spending

Democrats sidestep budget deal by seeking $250B in emergency spending
© Greg Nash

House Democrats are seeking to boost federal spending by about $250 billion in a move that would sidestep a budget deal reached last year with Republicans and the White House.

The proposed emergency spending for coronavirus relief, infrastructure, veterans care and a slew of other priorities would exceed the bipartisan budget caps on funding for annual appropriations bills.

While the proposed amount is just a fraction of the almost $3 trillion approved by Congress for coronavirus relief this year, House Republicans say the gambit will complicate efforts to eventually reconcile spending bills with the GOP-controlled Senate.

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“We are only on our first day of subcommittee markups, and I already have serious concerns about our path forward,” Rep. Kay GrangerNorvell (Kay) Kay GrangerHelping our seniors before it's too late House approves .3 trillion spending package for 2021 GOP lawmakers comply with Pelosi's mask mandate for House floor MORE (R-Texas), ranking member on the Appropriations Committee, said Monday as the House kicked off the process of marking up the 12 annual spending bills that fund the government.

The emergency funding, she noted, would “spend billions of dollars on top of what the current budget agreement allows.”

Democrats counter that if ever there was a time for emergency measures, it’s now.

“The need for emergency funding to address COVID-19, which has claimed more than 125,000 American lives and 500,000 worldwide, cannot be overstated,” said House Appropriations Committee Chairwoman Nita LoweyNita Sue LoweyIt's past time to be rid of the legacy of Jesse Helms Helping our seniors before it's too late House approves .3 trillion spending package for 2021 MORE (D-N.Y.).

The extra funding would cover a wide swath of issues, from rural broadband and transportation infrastructure to health care and global coronavirus relief. Taken together, the emergency measures represent a 39 percent increase in domestic spending over current levels.

In any other year, a quarter-trillion dollars tacked onto a series of regular spending bills would be unheard of. But the economic emergency caused by the pandemic has turned it into a rounding error, as Congress has approved trillions of dollars to fight COVID-19, including a record $2.2 trillion for the CARES Act in March.

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Still, Republicans argue there is no need to continue the spending spree into fiscal 2021, which begins on Oct. 1, especially if it means disregarding last year’s hard-fought budget deal.

At this time last year, the Democratic-controlled House, Republican Senate and White House were furiously negotiating an agreement to increase spending caps for both 2020 and 2021. Without a deal, there would have been major cuts in both defense and domestic spending.

Their eventual agreement laid out a path for $1.367 trillion in spending for fiscal 2020, and just $8 billion more for 2021.

But the Democratic bills introduced this week would bring discretionary spending to more than $1.6 trillion for 2021, a 16 percent increase over current levels.

Even budget hawks have acknowledged that deficit spending is needed in times like these, with austerity reserved for boom times.

“The bigger danger is letting the economy go into a depression, so it’s appropriate to do deep spending in an emergency,” said Marc Goldwein, head of policy for the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, a fiscal watchdog group.

But he also warned not to use a downturn as an excuse to spend on other priorities without finding a way to pay for them.

“The emergency designation is there for emergencies, which means things that are urgent, unforeseen and temporary,” Goldwein said. “The question that I would ask is if the broadband, the housing, is that really in light of the coronavirus emergency? It’s not appropriate to use an emergency situation for building roads.”

The deficit, he noted, will pose a serious challenge on the other side of the COVID-19 crisis. This year alone, the deficit is projected to surpass $3.8 trillion, nearly three times the record set in 2009 during the Great Recession.

Meanwhile, accumulated debt in the next few weeks is expected to exceed a record set during World War II.

But the proposed emergency spending from Democrats faces a very steep uphill battle to becoming law. The House, which requires only a simple majority to pass spending bills, frequently sends the Senate partisan bills before negotiations get underway.

The Senate, which requires bipartisan majorities to pass spending legislation, often strips out controversial measures in favor of compromise provisions.

Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Richard ShelbyRichard Craig ShelbyWary GOP eyes Meadows shift from brick-thrower to dealmaker On The Money: Pessimism grows as coronavirus talks go down to the wire | Jobs report poised to light fire under COVID-19 talks | Tax preparers warn unemployment recipients could owe IRS Pessimism grows as coronavirus talks go down to the wire MORE (R-Ala.) insists that emergency spending on the coronavirus crisis should be relegated to the bill that’s being crafted in the Senate and should remain separate from the appropriations process.

That position has run into fierce opposition from Senate Democrats and prevented the appropriations process from moving forward in the chamber.

Any long-term standoff between congressional Democrats and Republicans would just increase the odds of Congress kicking the can down the road with a continuing resolution, dealing with spending legislation after the November elections, perhaps even into January.

Some Republicans say the House’s emergency spending proposals only add to that possibility.

“I am concerned that extensive use of emergency funds and some other budget gimmicks will make it very difficult to negotiate a final bill with the U.S. Senate,” said Rep. Tom ColeThomas (Tom) Jeffrey ColeHouse approves .3 trillion spending package for 2021 Multiple lawmakers self-quarantine after exposure to Gohmert House panel advances health bill with B in emergency COVID-19 funds MORE (R-Okla.), the ranking member on the House Appropriations subcommittee dealing with labor, health and human services and education.

He added that the funding fights may very well set the stage for “a yearlong continuing resolution.”