Budgets are about making choices. A family sitting around their kitchen table has to weigh what their expected income will allow them to purchase and decide which of the things they would like to buy they can actually afford. It’s rarely easy and it’s never fun, but most families come to realize that it is a lot better than the alternative.
The federal government has a budget, too, and it must make many of the same decisions. But it seems those decisions have meant less and less in recent years. In fact, it is fair to question whether the federal budget should still be called a budget at all given how much spending is taking place above and beyond the amounts that were agreed to when the budget plans are put together.
The mechanism for circumventing the federal budget is known as “supplemental appropriations.” The purpose of “supplementals” is supposed to be to finance unforeseen emergencies. Some families keep what they call a “rainy day” fund to cover such emergencies. Others have to borrow money in the event of unexpected medical costs or unforeseen repair bills. But the federal government is not only burdened with borrowing for unanticipated costs, it has been regularly setting itself up to do a great deal of additional borrowing for expenses that have easily been forecast when the president sent his initial request for spending to the Congress.
Late Thursday evening, House and Senate conferees came to final agreement on a $94.5 billion appropriation to be added to the almost $900 billion in discretionary spending already appropriated for the current fiscal year. It is the largest single supplemental in this history of the republic, but Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist said it was evidence that, “Congress is cracking down on excessive Washington spending, and this supplemental spending bill proves that we are on track.”
The record-breaking supplemental, which Frist curiously points to with such pride, is not even the first supplemental of the year. Fifty billion dollars in additional supplemental spending was already tucked into the fiscal 2006 defense appropriation bill.
Perhaps the most important fact, however, is that what has happened to this year’s budget is not unique. Last year, the president signed $160 billion in “emergency” supplemental spending measures; the year before emergency appropriation measures funded outside the planned budget totaled $118 billion.
According to the Congressional Budget Office, supplemental appropriation spending has amounted to $577 billion since fiscal 2001 when George W. Bush took office. That is an average of $96 billion a year.
How does that compare with supplemental “emergency” spending during the previous six fiscal years? From the beginning of fiscal year 1995 to the end of fiscal year 2000, all supplementals (net of rescissions) totaled $21 billion. That was an average annual level of less than $4 billion a year, or about one-twenty-fifth the annual level during the Bush administration.
Critics of Bush administration budget policies often point to the large tax cuts enacted during this administration despite the fact that we were fighting a war in Iraq and a global war on terrorism. But the haphazard and ad hoc manner in which spending priorities are established and budgets are adopted has also contributed.
An important objective of the 1974 Congressional Budget Act was to reduce reliance on supplemental appropriations. Whether or not those reforms might have contributed to a more orderly process for deciding where federal dollars are most needed, the experience of the past few years proves that no process will bring order in the absence of a commitment by elected leaders to make the process work.
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