Congressional Budget Office data on “Supplemental Budget Authority for the 2000s” support Rogers’ contention. Offsets, in the form of rescissions and transfers, have been used for both defense and domestic needs in 15 of the 29 emergency measures enacted since 2000. On average, 7 percent of defense discretionary spending has been offset in those bills and 15 percent of nondefense spending.
While Rogers argued that the offsets included funds for disaster relief and recovery on numerous occasions, including for Hurricane Katrina in 2006, Appropriations ranking member Norm Dicks (D-Wash.) countered that none of the supplementals was used directly for those accounts. (The CBO does not make a distinction in its data.) Nevertheless, on the second round the following day, with only 24 GOP defections, the measure passed the House with an additional $100 million rescission for the Solyndra solar energy loan. The Senate promptly tabled the House amendment.
The issue of whether emergency appropriations should be offset has been debated for decades. Appropriators have sporadically included partial offsets, though nowhere near the full amounts. The issue is all the more salient in recent years because of soaring deficits.
One distinction that escapes some Members is the effect of the “emergency” designation attached to war and disaster relief supplementals. On the one hand, it means those funds will not be counted against the statutory spending ceilings and therefore will not trigger sequestration (across-the-board cuts). On the other, they still count toward the debt and deficit. It is not free money.
It is unrealistic to expect emergency spending ever to be fully offset, but the debate over providing substantial offsets, for wars and disasters, is well worth having if Congress is serious about bringing deficits under control.
Don Wolfensberger is a Congressional scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and former staff director of the House Rules Committee.