4 Budget Pitfalls Congress Should Avoid in 2020 Appropriations

Justin Bogie | September 20, 2019 | 4:42pm EDT
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With less than two weeks remaining before the start of fiscal 2020 on Oct. 1, Congress has yet to pass a single appropriations bill.

That’s despite the fact that, back in July, Congress passed a massive deal to increase spending by $324 billion over the next two years.

In its first effort to avoid a government shutdown, the House voted 301-123 Thursday to approve a continuing resolution to keep the government open through Nov. 21.

Another year of budget dysfunction shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone. It’s been 25 years since Congress completed each step of the budget process before Oct. 1.

Since then, when Congress eventually has completed the process, the outcome often has been so-called “omnibus” spending bills filled with waste and cronyism.

The next few months provide a chance for Congress to atone for the sins of appropriations seasons past.

As lawmakers engage in the 2020 spending process, here are four pitfalls Congress should avoid:

1. Don’t increase spending to the Bipartisan Budget Act of 2019 level. In late July, Congress passed a deal to boost the Budget Control Act discretionary spending caps by $324 billion over the next two years. Congress does not have to spend that much money. It can choose to stay well below that excessive level. The total 2020 increase is $169 billion.

While the increase in national defense spending is justifiable, additional spending on domestic programs is not.

The government is $22.5 trillion in debt and projected to add $12.6 trillion more in the next decade. The Congressional Budget Office estimates that the Bipartisan Budget Act of 2019 accounts for $1.7 trillion of that new debt.

The federal government is spending much more money than it’s taking in, and it’s working Americans who feel the economic impact of irresponsible spending.

Congress should reject the nondefense-spending increase approved by the latest budget deal and fully pay for increases to defense funding through other spending cuts.

That would be a first step toward reinstituting fiscal responsibility.

2. Don’t attach disaster relief and emergency funding. Since enactment of the Budget Control Act of 2011, supplemental disaster and emergency appropriations have been on the rise.

Far too often, Congress uses the emergency designation as a way to increase unrelated domestic spending.

According to the Congressional Budget Office, the fiscal 2018 omnibus appropriation act contained more than $125 billion in uncapped emergency funding.

Some $50 billion of the funding went to the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the country’s primary disaster-response agency, but much of the rest went toward programs that play no role in disaster response, including $35 billion for the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Community Development Block Grants.

Lawmakers should implement reforms to ensure that America is prepared for the next disaster before it strikes, because some events are truly unforeseeable and catastrophic. In those instances, Congress should consider supplemental funding needs individually, not as a part of regular appropriations legislation.

When supplemental funds are warranted, lawmakers should ensure that the costs are fully paid for by cutting other parts of the budget.

3. Reject the use of gimmicks to increase spending. The most commonly used appropriations gimmick is known as Changes in Mandatory Programs (CHIMPs). CHIMPs generally come in the form of a rescission of mandatory funding. Congress then uses the savings to increase unrelated discretionary spending.

The problem with this approach is that most of the time, CHIMPs produce no real budget-outlay savings. They shift spending from the current budget year to the future.

In many cases, agencies were unlikely to spend the rescinded funds in the first place. CHIMPs cost taxpayers billions of dollars each year. The Senate Appropriations Committee plans to increase spending by $15 billion next year through the use of phony CHIMP savings.

There is currently a Senate point of order in place that limits the total amount of non-outlay CHIMP savings through 2020, but limiting the use of gimmicks is not good enough. Congress should stop the use of CHIMPs immediately.

4. Don’t include unrelated legislative provisions in appropriations bills. Since appropriations bills are one of the few legislative items that Congress must pass each year, they often become a vehicle for unrelated legislation.

The continuing resolution passed by the House this week includes an extension of the National Flood Insurance Program through Nov. 21. The National Flood Insurance Program perpetually loses money. Taxpayers provided a $16 billion bailout to the program in 2018.

Congress should not reauthorize it without first implementing structural reforms.

Several other programs are set to expire before the end of the year, including Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, the Export-Import Bank, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, and tax provisions related to the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017, among others.

It’s the job of authorizing committees to determine how an agency spends funding and evaluate whether or not the agency is effectively spending those funds.  Attaching authorizing legislation to appropriations bills undermines Congress’ oversight role.

Lawmakers should consider the provisions on their own merits after thorough debate.

Fiscal 2020 will likely go down as another year in which the federal government starts the year under a continuing resolution—that is, the status quo. But this is where the status quo can end, though.

Congress should avoid past appropriations pitfalls and use the extra time as a chance to recommit to more responsible budgeting.

Justin Bogie is a senior policy analyst in fiscal affairs at The Heritage Foundation.

Editor's Note: This piece was originally published by The Daily Signal.

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