We should offset emergencies — just not right away

We should offset emergencies — just not right away
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The House of Representatives is set to pass a $12 billion disaster supplemental bill without any offsets this week. If not for the shutdown, and despite America’s increasingly crushing debt burden, it would likely pass overwhelmingly. It still might.

True, the junior senator from Kentucky will probably try again to offset the new spending and again fall short. Yet the political will to do so immediately does not and will not exist. Congress needs to institutionalize a way to offset crisis spending later —  instead of never.

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America faces its share of emergencies. Every year at least some of our fellow citizens deal with hurricanes, wildfires, floods, earthquakes, and other natural disasters. Occasionally we confront major economic shocks. Sometimes national security contingencies occur, like addressing the 9/11 attacks.

In each case, the federal government responds. Congress usually approves the funding through supplemental appropriations overwhelmingly and rapidly. It’s a natural human impulse to try to respond quickly. Quibbling over offsets — deliberation — feels disrespectful, both to those who are suffering or grieving and to the first responders who confront the crisis and its aftermath.

That does not mean, however, that emergency spending can be ignored. It adds to the debt, pushing up against the debt limit and ultimately against creditors’ faith in the federal government’s long-term solvency. Federal gross debt is nearly $22 trillion and growing fast. This year’s deficit will likely exceed $1 trillion and could easily top $1.5 trillion in just ten years.

Further, “must-pass” emergency supplementals have become a vehicle for attaching various and sundry unrelated legislative measures. Sometimes the spending goes well beyond the emergency to fund not only relief and recovery but also future mitigation, which belongs in the normal process.

This isn’t sustainable. Immediate offsets aren’t feasible, and simply piling on the debt isn’t responsible. Congress has realized this in the past, but it still regularly waives delayed-but-across-the-board cuts such as under the The Statutory Pay-As-You-Go Act of 2010.

A new paradigm is needed. First, offsets over a reasonably short period and, second, politically sustainable enforcement with targeted, incremental adjustments to a broad range of programs and authorities.

Precedents exist. Switzerland, for example, requires emergency spending to be offset within three or six years, depending on its size, within overall business cycle balanced budget requirements. Offsetting emergencies would likely require the United States to adopt enforceable fiscal goals too. Balance isn’t the only option.

Incredibly, Switzerland doesn’t have specific enforcement mechanisms. The people demand fiscal responsibility and their legislators provide it.

If only Americans were so inclined. But we aren’t, so we need statutory enforcement. For discretionary spending, the budget caps could return as a spending freeze, not as cuts. Direct spending provisions, and perhaps revenue, could be tweaked incrementally with each budget breach.

Enforceable spending caps, which we desperately need, would help get our debt under control. They would help squeeze out the lowest value activities at home and abroad that don’t provide benefits for the American people. The more that debt pays for spending instead of revenue, the cheaper those activities seem and the more we get. Some of the freed resources would help with the overall budget picture, and some could be reinvested in higher priorities.

New rules would also provide a framework for offsetting emergency spending over several years. Emergency spending packages would be cleaner and more focused on the actual needs of the crisis. If they get larded up with unrelated and unimportant spending, at least as far as most members are concerned, they’d eventually have to be offset against other things that the people they represent care about.

Having to offset emergency spending might also give members of Congress a tangible reason to care about America’s expansive role in the world and the federal government’s extensive involvement in all facets of domestic life.

If the American people demand that their representatives explain why they choose to set certain priorities, elected officials would have good reasons — if only for political survival — to care about the relative value of government activities and maybe even simplifying the system. A more informed Congress and a more informed public would foster a healthier dialogue about the roles of public and private initiative.

Unexpected federal spending must be an option for emergencies, but the consequences cannot be ignored. Instead of trying and failing to pursue immediate offsets, however, a more realistic approach would recoup those costs over several years. Congress could still address immediate challenges without losing sight of the big picture. That’s the balance the American people expect their public servants to strike on their behalf.

Kurt Couchman is the vice president of public policy at Defense Priorities. He previously served as a policy expert in congressional offices, most recently as a legislative director for Rep. Dave Brat (R-Va.). Follow him on Twitter @KurtCouchman.