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The US spending bill process avoids scrutiny by tallying up emergency expenditures (Christine Roy via Unsplash)

What Counts As a US Spending ‘Emergency’?

The process skirts essential scrutiny and debate.

Words: Steve Ellis
Pictures: Christine Roy

Even though lawmakers belatedly finished passing fiscal year 2024 spending bills halfway through the fiscal year, some FY24 work still remains to be finished. That’s because an “emergency” supplemental spending bill has been languishing since last summer. This bipartisan legislation to provide aid to Ukraine, Israel, and Taiwan passed the United States Senate in February as part of an “emergency supplemental” appropriations package after provisions related to border security were removed.

While parts of this funding package arguably aim to address pressing emergencies, others do not qualify as emergencies, and these portions should properly be considered through the normal budget process.

The package, initially proposed at $118.3 billion, was scaled down to nearly $95 billion. It designates over $67 billion for the Pentagon and an additional $27 billion for diplomatic and humanitarian assistance outside of the US Department of Defense (DOD). A significant share is allocated to Ukraine and Israel, with additional funds aimed at countering China’s influence and supporting the US submarine industrial base.

Since this “emergency” legislation was negotiated and passed in the Senate, it has become the subject of international concern about its passage, highlighting the fickle, unpredictable, on-again, off-again nature of today’s federal budget process.

After its overwhelming passage of 70-29 in the Senate, the bill was sent to the US House of Representatives, where it remains pending, with House members taking a two-week recess to come back this Tuesday.

Stretching the Definition of “Emergency”

House Speaker Michael Johnson, a Republican from Louisiana, faces a restive Republican conference and must decide when — or if — to buck a small but vocal opposition within his slim majority, or whether to add sweeteners to the bill, such as repealing the administration’s liquefied natural gas (LNG) export ban imposed in January. Johnson’s other alternative would be to rely on parliamentary measures to gain a broad bipartisan vote to move the legislation through the chamber as he did with the final FY24 regular appropriations bills in mid-March.

Much of the funding in the emergency supplemental legislation is in response to pressing security and humanitarian issues that need to be addressed. But lawmakers and the administration could not resist the time-honored Washington tradition of adding more and more provisions to a perceived “must-pass” package. Taken together, too many items seem to stretch the definition of “emergency,” raising questions about the appropriateness of bypassing the regular budget process. 

Our nation’s staggering $34.5 trillion debt is testament to our persistent budgeting problems, worsened by gimmicks from Congress and presidential administrations alike. These gimmicks, used to distort the true fiscal impact of legislation, include keeping spending off the official budget, timing gimmicks, rosy scenarios, cherry-picking numbers to make the fiscal outlook appear more favorable than it is, and the misuse of emergency spending designations.

This “emergency” supplemental legislation not only honors this long tradition of budget gimmicks — it doubles down.

Better Managed with Regular Budgeting

For instance, over $50 billion is proposed for enhancing the American military industrial base, focusing on munitions production. While initially justifiable as an emergency response in the early stages of the Russia-Ukraine conflict, two years into the war, supporting munitions production should have been adequately addressed in the Pentagon’s base budget request.

Similarly, the allocation of $3.3 billion for the submarine industrial base, while addressing a real issue, does not constitute an unforeseen emergency. These challenges have been known and could be managed through regular budgeting. But that would mean fitting the funding under the existing defense budget cap. 

While initially justifiable as an emergency response in the early stages of the Russia-Ukraine conflict, two years into the war, supporting munitions production should have been adequately addressed in the Pentagon’s base budget request.

The bill also includes funding meant to counter China’s influence, a long-standing strategic concern rather than a sudden emergency. The inclusion of $542.4 million to support unspecified line items for the Indo-Pacific command’s “unfunded priorities” list also continues this trend of using emergency packages to finance projects that do not meet the criteria of urgent or unforeseen needs, to the extent that these extrabudgetary wishlists constitute real needs at all.

While some elements of the package, like funding for the Defense-Working Capital fund to protect shipping in the Red Sea, could arguably qualify as emergency needs, others clearly do not.

Skirting Scrutiny

This approach to federal spending raises concerns about transparency and accountability. By labeling strategic initiatives and long-term investments as emergency expenditures, the process skirts the scrutiny and debate essential to a regular budget order.

Labeling routine expenditures as emergencies not only undermines fiscal responsibility but also adds to the national debt. This blurs the lines between emergency and regular spending, diminishing oversight and justifying discretionary outlays without adequate justification.

While much of the emergency supplemental package may have merit, only true emergencies should be funded through this spending tool. We propose stricter criteria for what constitutes an emergency, enhanced oversight mechanisms, and a more transparent and deliberative budgeting process for long-term strategic investments. 

It is incumbent upon our leaders to honor the principles of responsible budgeting by maintaining a clear distinction between emergency and regular spending. This not only upholds fiscal responsibility but also helps ensure that taxpayer dollars are allocated effectively and transparently, with the country’s best interests in mind.

Steve Ellis

Steve Ellis is president of Taxpayers for Common Sense, a nonpartisan budget watchdog that has served as an independent voice for the American taxpayer since 1995. It works to ensure that taxpayer dollars are spent responsibly and that the government operates within its means.

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