Congress is expecting a request from the Trump Administration for $12 to $15 billion in supplemental appropriations to fund the construction of a border wall with Mexico, according to press reports. As we stated last week, Congress should fully offset the cost of this supplemental, particularly since it does not meet the criteria for an emergency.
With debt as a share of GDP higher than any time since World War II and growing, policymakers should pay for any new spending or tax breaks rather than allow them to increase the debt. In the case of the wall, offsets could either come from within the non-defense discretionary caps or by increasing the caps and identifying specific mandatory cuts or tax revenue to pay for that increase. In the past, we've suggested a number of possible offsets in our mandatory savings to pay for sequester, tax compliance proposals to increase revenue without changing the tax code, and potential offsets we suggested to pair with Zika funding, as well as a much larger list of mandatory and revenue options.
Current budget rules provide exceptions to PAYGO rules and discretionary spending caps in the case of an emergency. However, there is no justification for an emergency designation in this case. The bill is expected to provide additional funding for the 2006 Secure Fence Act in order to address a long-standing concern over illegal immigration across the U.S.-Mexican border. Funding for a 10-year old law does not meet the criteria of an emergency: urgent, necessary, and unforeseen.
Unlike recent supplementals for Ebola or Zika and much like funding for the 2010 Census and extensions of unemployment benefits half a decade after the Great Recession began, funding for the wall is simply not addressing an unforeseen event with too little time to identify an offset.
As CRFB president Maya MacGuineas said in a recent statement:
Any border wall should be fully paid for in the same legislation that spends the funds, either through other spending cuts or revenue increases, and those pay-fors should be specific, credible, and not used to pay for multiple policies.
The first rule for getting out of a hole is to stop digging – this minimum criteria of complying with pay-as-you-go rules will at least keep our unsustainable debt situation from getting worse.
If we let these rules slide this time, who knows where that slippery slope might take us next as policymakers debate hundreds of billions of dollars of new spending on defense and infrastructure and trillions of dollars of potential revenue loss from tax cuts.
If Congress abandons budget discipline this time, it won't be Mexico paying for the wall, but the next generation of Americans.