Next week, the House of Representatives will debate its first appropriations package for the fiscal year that begins October 1. Floor action will start with a $259.5 billion package that combines four of the annual spending bills into one “minibus” appropriations bill: Agriculture, Interior-Environment, Military Construction-VA and the State-Foreign Operations measures.
The topline spending limits for the two aggregate categories of discretionary spending, defense and non-defense, were adopted last year, but Republicans and Democrats have not yet agreed on how to sub-allocate those funds among the 12 annual appropriations bills. The spending caps are very tight this year – only $5 billion higher for defense and non-defense each, a total 0.8 percent increase over 2020 levels. As a consequence, the House-drafted legislation relies on a host of egregious but well-worn budget gimmicks that permit lawmakers to spend significantly more than last year’s budget agreement allows.
Unnecessary use of the emergency designation. The Budget Control Act of 2011 exempts certain types of spending from the discretionary spending caps. One example is spending designated for emergency purposes. In budget law, an emergency is defined as sudden, urgent, unforeseen, and temporary.
According to the drafts released and reported out by the subcommittees, House Democrats have proposed padding the 2021 appropriations measures with approximately $247 billion in emergency-designated funds. In some cases, the amount of emergency spending exceeds more than half of the bill’s regular (base) spending.
In the House bills, the emergency designation is mostly attached to pandemic response efforts. While this funding fits the definition of an “emergency,” Congress is readying another pandemic relief bill – its fifth – which it intends to pass before adjourning for the August recess. The emergency COVID-19 spending in the House annual appropriations bills should be moved to this alternative vehicle where it can be considered, debated, and prioritized along with the other COVID-19 provisions.
In addition, the House Military Construction-Veterans Administration bill includes an emergency designation for $12.5 billion, largely for veterans medical care. While this spending is important and necessary, it does not fit the definition of “emergency” per budget law. The president and Senate Republicans have resisted this gimmick in the past and should do so again. Veterans medical care should be considered regular (base) funding and should count towards the discretionary spending caps.
CHIMPs. CHIMP is an abbreviation for Changes in Mandatory Programs, a common but egregious backdoor spending device. When appropriators use a CHIMP, they rescind dormant budget authority in a mandatory program (which is not subject to the spending caps and was never going to be spent) and use those illusory “savings” to offset increases in discretionary appropriations that ARE subject to the caps. It’s like a budgetary shell game where finding the little red ball is just as elusive as finding the savings in a CHIMP.
In their current drafts, House appropriators relied on CHIMPs to increase discretionary spending by $15 billion. In the Commerce-Justice-Science bill, a rescission of untapped money in the Crime Victims Fund allowed appropriators to increase discretionary spending by nearly $3.3 billion. The Labor-Health and Human Services-Education bill rescinded $11.8 billion in unspent balances in the Children's Health Insurance Program - which received more mandatory funding in prior years than it needed to carry out its mandate - and deployed that budget authority in other discretionary programs.
Converting discretionary spending to mandatory spending. The Interior-Environment appropriation bill for 2021 appears poised to benefit from a bipartisan budget gimmick. Rather than try to shoehorn $495 million in Land and Water Conservation Fund programs into the annual spending bill, Congress is expected to pass, and the president sign, separate standalone legislation to make LWCF funding "mandatory" — beyond the scope and enforcement actions of the discretionary spending caps, freeing up nearly a half-billion in new spending elsewhere.
It is easy to chastise the House because their appropriators have actually produced legislation. Ordinarily, The Concord Coalition would apply similar scrutiny to any Senate appropriations product, but the chamber hasn’t produced any, not a single bill. Mired in a political fight over amendments, the Senate’s appropriations process stalled before it even began.
Given the extraordinary circumstances surrounding the annual appropriations process this year, now more than ever it is incumbent upon Congress to be transparent with and accountable for its spending decisions. Policymakers should not rely on budget gimmicks, loopholes, and backdoor spending devices to give spending bills the veneer of fiscal responsibility. Nor should they abdicate their most basic responsibility - drafting and passing appropriations legislation - merely because it is politically expedient.