(WATCH) Emergency Spending


Even with a running deficit and crushing debt, Congress spends giant amounts of our tax money on supposed emergency causes. But Scott Thuman reports, what constitutes an emergency is open to a lot of interpretation.

The following is a transcript of a report from “Full Measure with Sharyl Attkisson.” Watch the video by clicking the link at the end of the page.

After Russia invaded Ukraine in 2022, the U.S. sent the beleaguered country more than $113 billion dollars in aid, the majority of it spent on weapons and ammunition. And there’s even more on the way.

Late last month, President Biden signed a new foreign aid package, providing over $60 billion in additional support for the conflict in Ukraine. Add the numbers up and the total aid sent from Washington has surpassed $174 billion to date.

Where does this aid come from? Congress and the White House have a special way of covering those costs — not already part of the federal budget. They call it emergency spending, and it also offers financial support for victims of natural disasters, and it could be used to pay for the Baltimore bridge collapse.

President Joe Biden: “It’s my intention that the federal government will pay for the entire cost of reconstructing that bridge.”

Romina Boccia: Emergency spending is an annual occurrence. These are basically budget loopholes that allow Congress to circumvent spending limits that they agreed on in law, and they get very little scrutiny.

Romina Boccia is an economist with the Cato Institute, which promotes limited government. Emergency spending, in her view, allows Congress to dole out money, with no accountability.

Scott: And we’re on the hook for it?

Boccia: We are always on the hook for it. We looked at the last 30 years of emergency spending, and we calculated that it’s 12 trillion of just emergency spending, with an additional 2 trillion in interest costs, because you can assume that that’s pretty much deficit spending, because it’s always outside and above the budget caps.

The merits of the largesse depend on who is on the receiving end, while the benefactor is always the taxpayer.

Boccia: Some of the examples we’ve seen are just outrageous. For example, in the most recent spending bill that just passed, you have salary increases for law enforcement. That’s clearly a permanent expenditure. It’s not an emergency. There’s $8 billion in rental assistance subsidies, and that program has received regular emergency designations. That’s not an emergency. Yes, the rent is perhaps too high and continues to go up, but that doesn’t make it a federal emergency.

There are two main categories of federal spending: mandatory, meaning, the government has a legal obligation to fund programs like Medicare and Social Security. And then there’s discretionary spending — costs like defense, scientific research, and food assistance. Boccia says roughly half of the emergency spending since 1992 has fallen into this category, mostly in response to the Great Recession and COVID-19, where the potential for abuse happened to be ripe.

Boccia: Especially during the pandemic, where we had trillions of dollars in emergency spending, and some of the examples were almost $7 million for golf courses in Colorado, or money for a new luxury hotel in Florida. Childcare subsidies, you name it, any political priority could potentially be designated as emergency spending, but calling it that doesn’t make it so. The idea was just to shovel as much money out the door as possible. And then of course, we had a 40-year inflation high. So the American people should rightly be upset that prices on groceries, gas, and all sorts of other things that they need for living have gone up as a direct result of the government printing more money to fund some of these emergency spending sprees.

Scott: Is one party more guilty than another of this?

Boccia: I would say there is bipartisan blame to go around. However, in this most recent budget cycle, we’ve really seen Senate Democrats ask for a lot more emergency spending than House Republicans, which have been trying to cut spending in the budget.

Scott: What about presidents? Is one of them more notorious than others for calling things “emergencies” and writing those checks?

Boccia: Well most recently, certainly, President Biden has taken a lot of discretion with calling things emergencies. I mean, think of the student loan forgiveness. That was one of the biggest examples. But we also saw President Trump rely on emergency powers to, for example, reallocate funding towards the U.S. border. So again, overspending in government is a bipartisan problem.

Scott: Who is it that can police this?

Boccia: Congress could change the budget law where it might take, for example, a higher voting threshold to designate something as an emergency. But even more important than that, I think, is Congress should have to offset, meaning pay for, any new emergency spending. There should be an expectation that they will reduce other spending in the future or reduce the deficit through new revenues to pay for that emergency spending.

Sharyl (on-camera): It’s the same story over and over again. Why is it so hard to have basic accountability?

Scott: Well because accountability means spending would fall under a microscope. And not everybody’s gonna love that idea on the hill. But it’s not that they haven’t tried to rein in spending over the years. Remember, for example, earmarks. There was that controversial but popular way to push spending through, especially pet projects. Congress did ban them more than a decade ago. But that’s when emergency spending became kind of this go-to workaround. And, as you’ve reported, earmarks are slowly returning.

Watch video here.

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1 thought on “(WATCH) Emergency Spending”

  1. The rest of us set aside money regularly for use in emergencies and/or tighten our belts and find other ways to save when an emergency does come. Why can’t the government do the same?

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