On Wednesday, the House passed a $7.85 billion emergency spending measure to replenish the Federal Emergency Management Agency's dwindling disaster relief fund by a vote of 419 - 3. Last week, Heritage Action said the measure was "largely encouraging" as 95 percent of the spending was targeted to FEMA's disaster relief fund, which is expected to run out of money at the end of the week due to ongoing efforts in response to Hurricane Harvey.
Unfortunately, the Trump administration and congressional Republicans agreed to link that much-need emergency spending to a suspension of our nation's debt ceiling, and the administration ultimately agreed with congressional Democrats that the debt ceiling suspension should last less than three months. As a result, the Senate will soon vote to amend the House-passed Harvey bill with McConnell Amendment 808. That amendment would:
- Provide $7.4 billion in emergency funding for FEMA's dwindling disaster relief fund, $450 million for the SBA, and another $7.4 billion for Community Development Block Grant program, which the president's budget eliminated;
- Suspend our nation's statutory limit until December 8, allowing Treasury to borrow unlimited sums of money;
- Extend government funding, scheduled to expire after September 30, through December 8, 2017; and,
- Extend various other expiring programs, such as the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP) through December 8 as well.
Last weekend on Fox News Sunday, Heritage Action's chief executive officer Michael A. Needham cautioned that linking any debt ceiling suspension to emergency spending would be "exploiting this hurricane and people who lost their houses to allow business as usual in Washington" to continue. The Heritage Foundation added, "Congress can provide targeted, appropriate disaster relief without an irresponsible hike in the debt limit" and urged Congress to avoid "exploiting the goodwill of the American people to assist their fellow Americans when disaster strikes."
Beyond the politics of exploiting hurricane victims and potentially delaying much-needed disaster relief, the proposed combination is wrong on policy grounds.
First, our nation's debt ceiling should be used as an opportunity to address the federal government's spending addiction and ultimately get our nation on a path to balance. In August, Heritage Action explained that "Our nation's structural deficit is driven by historically irresponsible levels of federal spending" and that any increase "should be paired with serious spending reforms that begin reducing federal spending in real, meaningful ways." The Heritage Foundation urges Congress and the Trump administration to "adopt spending cuts and critical reforms" along with any debt ceiling:
"A fiscal crisis that forces lawmakers to take action when investors lose confidence in the U.S. government would have far worse consequences than deliberate congressional action now, to ensure that necessary government functions are sustained."
In a letter to congressional leaders, Heritage Action and nine other conservative groups reminded Republican leaders they argued in 2011 when Barack Obama was president that "a debt limit increase was fiscally irresponsible and could not pass the House of Representatives without corresponding spending cuts." The letter continues:
"The United States' fiscal situation has only gotten worse. . . . With such an ominous picture facing our country, a debt ceiling increase would send a signal that congressional Republicans are not serious about tackling these challenges and that past words were only convenient rhetorical tools with which to criticize a Democratic administration."
Second, a "suspension" of the debt ceiling is a political gambit to avoid fiscal responsibility. The Heritage Foundation explains that "With a debt limit suspension, Congress effectively abdicates its constitutional power to control the borrowing of the federal government." It also allows lawmakers to avoid explaining the full amount of the new debt that will be incurred. Also, because Treasury will be able to use extraordinary measures again on December 9, timing of the next debt ceiling deadline is uncertain.
Third, as Heritage Action explained to the New York Times, it is political malpractice to put "conservative lawmakers—including those from Texas—'in a pretty difficult political situation' by essentially daring them to vote against a measure containing both Harvey aid and an increase to the debt limit." The Senate's inclusion of $7.4 billion in "emergency" funding for the HUD's Community Development Block Grant program suggests the Harvey relief process is quickly becoming a swamp-like boondoggle. Additionally, Democrats—now in the political minority—suddenly view the nation's debt ceiling as legislative leverage to advance their big-spending, progressive agenda.
Any increase in our nation's debt ceiling should be paired with reforms that deliver on then-candidate Trump's promise to "start to pay[ing] down our $19 trillion in debt." According to the non-partisan Congressional Research Service, the debt limit "imposes a form of fiscal accountability" when the federal government spends more money than it collects. The goal of the century-old debt limit was to maintain a congressional check on the increasingly common and complex activity of borrowing. It is irresponsible and reprehensible for Congress to use much-needed Harvey-related spending to bypass this important fiscal check.