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Editor's Pick

Curbing Federal Emergency Spending: New Study Release

Romina Boccia and Dominik Lett

Red flare in the night

We’ve just released a new paper providing comprehensive estimates of “emergency spending” going back to 1992. The key takeaway: Congress is increasingly abusing emergency designations to evade spending limits. With Congress still considering $110 billion in emergency funding for Ukraine and Israel, it is high time we recognize the fiscal and national security consequences of unpaid‐​for emergency spending. We write in our new policy analysis:

Congress has designated $12 trillion in spending for emergencies over the past 30 years. Poorly designed emergency spending rules allow Congress to routinely designate non‐​emergency line items as emergencies, increasing wasteful and excessive spending. High deficits, an escalating federal debt, and the insolvency of major entitlement programs mean that Congress is facing several budgetary challenges that will only grow in importance. It’s time for Congress to rein in emergency spending and its abuse.

Emergency spending totals $12 trillion over 30 years. That’s 43 percent of the current public federal debt before considering interest costs.

Major emergencies have a big impact on the budget. The two largest increases in federal debt over the last three decades were directly related to the extraordinary emergency fiscal responses to the Great Recession and COVID-19 pandemic. Following the most lavish emergency spending binge in US history during the pandemic, which helped drive inflation and interest rates to historic highs, Congress should reform emergency spending and avoid future emergency spending excesses.

Congress needs a budget enforcement mechanism for emergency spending. Clearly establishing what qualifies as an emergency and requiring a higher voting threshold for emergency designations would primarily target questionable “emergency” spending. Without a process to offset emergency spending, Congress will continue to use emergencies as a pretext to pass budget‐​breaking spending initiatives with no plan to rein in future spending.

The two largest increases in federal debt over the last three decades were directly related to the extraordinary emergency fiscal responses to the Great Recession and COVID-19 pandemic.

Myopic abuse of emergency designations contributes to the long‐​term fiscal challenge. Over the past decade, Congress designated one in every ten dollars of federal budget authority as emergency spending. Congress should terminate never‐​ending emergency declarations and reform the emergency spending process to enhance accountability and transparency by: offsetting emergency spending, including justifications for how emergency designations meet all five statutory criteria; raising the voting threshold for emergency designations; enhancing transparency in executive emergency‐​spending reporting; and revising the budget baseline to better reflect the temporary nature of emergency designations.

Without emergency spending offsets, Congress will continue to use emergencies as a pretext to pass budget‐​breaking spending initiatives.

Here’s what other budget experts have to say about our research:

“Congress must properly track and manage the entire federal budget—ALL spending and revenue, including emergency response—to serve the American people well. This paper’s comprehensive account of emergency spending and its recommended solutions will be a useful contribution to Congress getting its house in order.”

Kurt Couchman, Senior Policy Fellow, Fiscal Policy, Americans for Prosperity

“This is outstanding work that fills a big gap. Comprehensive, transparent/​honest, easy to follow, and covers the (sadly limited) range of potential reforms.”

David Ditch, Senior Policy Analyst, Budget Policy, Grover M. Hermann Center for the Federal Budget, Heritage Foundation

“This paper makes many important contributions to the discourse on emergencies, and its new estimates of unforeseen spending are the most thorough ever produced. Policymakers would be wise to consider Romina and Domink’s work as they consider how best to address the burgeoning national debt.”

Jonathan Bydlak, Fmr. Director, Governance Program, Fiscal and Budget Policy, R Street Institute

Read the full paper here.

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