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A Debate Worth Having on Emergency Offsets

Hopeful budget watchers predicted that Congress would have fairly smooth fiscal sailing now that statutory spending caps are in place. That obviously underestimates the ability of Members to whip up their own squalls.

In my previous column, I lamented Congress’ failure to enact any of its regular appropriations bills on time. It was next to unimaginable, though, that it would stumble over passing even a short-term, stopgap funding measure and come close to putting the entire government in lockdown. But it did.

Fortunately, this time Congress did not wait until the eleventh hour to resolve the controversy. It was saved from itself when the Federal Emergency Management Agency discovered it had enough money after all to get through the last week of the fiscal year without an infusion of emergency disaster funds. That discovery allowed Congress to table a fight over whether a $1 billion supplemental appropriation for FEMA should be offset by $1.5 billion from an energy-efficiency loan fund for automakers.

Although some leading House Democrats initially signaled support for the continuing resolution and FEMA supplemental, the opening for mischief was just too tempting to ignore — a political twofer: Republicans were vulnerable to the charge of holding natural disaster victims hostage for a ransom to be pilfered from a clean energy piggy bank. Put another way, the GOP poked a stick in the eye of Democrats over a pet program, and Democrats retaliated by grabbing the stick and whipping Republicans with it (beware of boys with sticks).

Proponents of the offset argued that for three years there has been “more than $4 billion in unspent idle funds in the pipeline” for the auto energy technology loan fund. Moreover, an identical offset passed the House, without controversy, as part of the disaster relief supplemental in June’s Homeland Security appropriations bill.

Republicans, meanwhile, were having a tough time holding their own ranks together. Some fiscal conservatives complained that the continuing resolution spending levels, although adhering to those agreed to in the Budget Control Act, were still too high because they exceeded amounts adopted earlier in the Republican budget resolution (as if the Senate and president would have a change of heart).

The upshot of these controversies was the initial defeat of the CR/FEMA supplemental measure by 35 votes, with 48 Republicans joining nearly all Democrats in opposition. Republicans suffered most from the showdown — portrayed in the media as dissing displaced disaster victims and once again threatening a government shutdown if they didn’t have their way. In reality, it was 97 percent of House Democrats and one-fifth of the Republicans who voted against keeping the government open and providing disaster relief because they didn’t get their way.

Not only was the whole episode much ado about little, but the facts of the case were scrambled in the process. Speaker after speaker on the Democratic side asserted that it was unprecedented to demand offsets for emergency disaster aid, and that Republicans were guilty of a double standard by never demanding offsets for supplemental war spending.

Appropriations Chairman Hal Rogers (R-Ky.) tried to refute those charges. “Offsetting emergency spending is not a unique practice,” Rogers said, noting that in the past decade more than half of the supplemental appropriations bills contained offsets for both defense and nondefense spending —“over $60 billion in emergency offsets since 2001.”

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