December 22, 2014

Growing Misuse of "Emergency" Designation Weakens Budget Discipline and Increases Deficit Spending

  • The federal budget process is a mixture of rules, timelines and norms that work together to influence policy decisions. It shapes how the...

Over the next few weeks, we will hear a lot about "emergency spending" as Congress turns to a major supplemental spending bill that will likely include funding for the war effort and other priorities. Supplemental appropriations bills provide funding in addition to what was previously enacted through the regular appropriations process.

If Congress designates supplemental spending as emergency spending, it is exempt from budget allocations and a number of other budget enforcement provisions. Most supplemental spending has been designated as emergency spending, and the two terms are often used interchangeably.

Emergency spending is routine but often controversial. Over the last ten years, supplemental appropriations have been largely designated as emergency spending and have increased significantly. According to the Congressional Budget Office, net supplemental spending totaled $99 billion in the 1980s and $86 billion in the 1990s. In contrast, between 2000 and 2009, supplemental appropriations often exceeded $100 billion a year.

These increases have occurred, in part, because Congress has used emergency appropriations for costly priorities such as the Hurricane Katrina relief effort, military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the 2009 stimulus bill. In addition, supplemental appropriations bills have routinely attracted extraneous items.

It is worth noting that the budgets President Obama has proposed over the last two years have more accurately reflected anticipated emergency spending. The budgets for FY 2010 and FY 2011 included funding for Iraq and Afghanistan and estimates for spending that could be needed for natural disasters.

The Concord Coalition urges that emergency spending be used only for legitimate emergencies, not as a budget gimmick. Extraneous items should be considered through the regular appropriations process.