Magazine article Insight on the News

How to Stop Emergency Funding Abuse

Magazine article Insight on the News

How to Stop Emergency Funding Abuse

Article excerpt

A funny thing happened on the way to deficit reduction. After a recent swing through the West, President Clinton sent Congress an urgent request for $31S million in unpaid "emergency" disaster assistance to replace the Cypress Freeway in Oakland, Calif Sen. Pete Domenici of New Mexico, the ranking Republican on the Budget Committee, protested the timing of the "emergency" funding request on the Senate floor after learning that the freeway had been damaged in the Loma Prieta earthquake -- four years earlier. Earthquakes are indeed tragedies, but 4-year-old road damage is hardly an "emergency." The amendment was quietly withdrawn, but not before many questions had been raised about the use and possible abuse of the emergency spending loophole by the Clinton administration.

In order to rein in runaway spending and impose discipline on the congressional budget process, the Budget Enforcement Act of 1990 put in place caps on spending through 1995. These caps were intended to be ironclad, but as one might expect, Washington gave itself an "emergency" exit. The drafters of the budget act included an "emergency requirement" to allow Congress and the president to address "sudden, urgent, unforeseen, necessary or temporary expenditures" -- such as hurricane losses or the costs of Desert Storm -- without causing a breakdown in the budget process.

If a funding request is defined as an emergency by the president and Congress, the spending does not count against the Appropriations Committee's spending allocations; it just gets added to the deficit. Members of Congress often lobby hard for a presidential emergency request for their favorite projects -- projects that could be funded through the normal appropriations process if they could be justified on their merits -- because an emergency designation eliminates the painful task of cutting other programs to stay within spending limits. The Cypress Freeway isn't the biggest or the worst example of using the emergency funding loophole, but it does provide a good illustration of some of the complex problems associated with federal disaster assistance programs.

The most obvious question is whether the freeway request met the original Office of Management and Budget criteria for emergency spending. Certainly the funding requirement for the freeway did not appear to be sudden, urgent or unforeseen. The need to replace the freeway has been apparent since its collapse after the 1989 earthquake. Although it was difficult at the time to estimate the cost of replacing the structure, precise estimates of the costs have been available since the environmental impact statement for the project was completed in September 1991.

If a project is not urgent or unforeseen, is it then reasonable for us to expect the Appropriations Committee to find the funding for it within its regular allocation? If we are serious about controlling federal spending, the answer must be yes. Otherwise we can no doubt expect to see a string of disaster relief amendments reaching back to the great Chicago fire.

A less easily answered question related to the emergency definition is whether the spending is necessary. The original disaster assistance legislation for the Loma Prieta earthquake provided $1 billion for federal highway repair. California officials said they needed much more, in large part because the state decided to rebuild the Cypress Freeway in a different location.

Community pressure in west Oakland was the driving factor in the move. …

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