Congress to embark on a spending spree this week

Elizabeth Letchworth Former U.S. Senate Secretary
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During this week in Congress, both the House and Senate are expected to consider bills that will cause the current debt limit to swell like Jiffy-Pop popcorn sitting on a hot burner. The Senate will consider an emergency supplemental appropriations bill designed to fund the Afghanistan and Iraq wars, the Haiti earthquake relief, money for clean-up of storms and the gulf oil spill. The House is planning on considering the so-called tax extenders bill, which at press time had a price tag of almost $190 billion. Both of these bills in part contain some meritorious provisions. At issue for this writer is the huge price tag these bills carry.

The Senate will consider the war supplemental, which has been designated an “emergency” by the powers that be. This “emergency” designation seems to be an over-used phrase these days in Congress. You see, if Congress and/or the president deem a spending bill an emergency, then Congress is devoid of having to find the funds to pay the tab for the spending contained in the bill. In this case, the original request from the administration for the funding was $33 billion. By the time the Senate appropriations committee finished their work on the bill, the price jumped to approximately $60 billion.

Back in 1990, when Congress officially created the emergency designation, they did so describing this process as, “an allowance for unanticipated uncontrollable expenditures for the ensuing fiscal year.” That description works fine when you talk about the Haiti earthquake relief or funds for the gulf oil spill, but it certainly doesn’t describe the majority of the $33 billion original request for our wars. As a matter of fact, when Congress funded the Afghanistan and Iraq wars last summer, via an emergency supplemental appropriations bill, Capitol Hill in general knew that the request was part of a two part funding request, the second of which would occur in the spring of 2010. So here we are, spring 2010, getting ready to fund another “emergency”, with Congress having the luxury of not having to find funds to pay for the spending.

In a February 2009 joint session speech to Congress, the president said the following: “I am committed to restoring a sense of honesty and accountability to our budget,” that is why this budget looks ahead 10 years and accounts for spending that was left out under the old rules—and for the first time, that includes the full cost of fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan. For seven years, we have been a nation at war. No longer will we hide its price.” Oops!
Sen. Tom Coburn, (R-Okla.) has put Congress on notice that he intends to insist on offsets throughout the year when Congress uses the emergency designation. In his statement on the Senate floor April 12, 2010, the Coburn said:

“Time and time again, Congress intentionally waits until the last minute to consider important legislation and then declares the billions of dollars in foreseeable costs as ‘emergency’ spending in order to avoid having to find a way to pay for the bills’ price tags.”

The Senate debate this week should at least be spirited

Across Capitol Hill, the House will consider a bill that extends many of the already expired tax provisions, which it originally passed last December to the tune of $31 billion. After the Speaker and the Democratic leadership got a hold of the bill again, that same bill comes to the House floor with a price tag of approximately $190 billion. The House will struggle to garner the votes to pass the bill from those members of Congress who have heard the American people’s voices saying “stop the spending!” This has been echoed in part via the recent primary loses by incumbents. However, competing with those voices are the very powerful labor unions in the name of SEIU and AARP. These two unions are joining forces with the Democratic Leadership in Congress to ask the House to pass the bill at any costs. The unions are reminding Congress that they are keeping score and watching their votes on the tax “extenders” bill very carefully.

Consequently, this week in Congress could wind up being very costly to the American electorate. While we watch and await the outcome of these spending bills in Congress, popcorn anyone?

Elizabeth B. Letchworth is a retired, four-times-elected United States Senate secretary for the Majority and Minority. She is the founder of GradeGov.com.