Business as Usual--Backdoor Spending Included in Supplemental

Here they go again. As they have for years, lawmakers are attempting to tuck billions of dollars for unrelated programs into the war supplemental spending bill. The House version of the $61.5 billion appropriations bill, likely to go to the floor this week, contains funding for a variety of non-war programs, including some $5.7 billion for the Pell Grant program.

As our New America Foundation colleague Jason Delisle recently pointed out, education advocates view this funding as crucial because Pell funding provided under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 soon will be depleted. If the funding is approved, Congress would only have to provide $17.5 billion in Fiscal 2011 rather than $23.2 billion to keep the maximum grant funded at $5,550 for future years. It should also be noted that the Pell Grant program is in surplus right now due to a supplemental $13.5 billion appropriation in the Health Care and Education Reconciliation Act signed into law in March. Given this funding surplus, there is no need to fund the Pell Grant as an emergency – there is absolutely no risk that a student would be denied his or her Pell Grant under the maximum award level of $5,550 for the 2010-11 academic year.

It appears that it's business as usual on Capitol Hill. War supplementals often are considered must-pass bills, so members hang unrelated funding they consider essential onto the bills. In addition, providing funding for Pell in the supplemental would loosen up more money in the upcoming Labor-Health and Human Services-Education appropriations bill--another favorite practice. The Pell charade has gone on for years. Congress divides up money for the program among several spending bills and does not fund Pell where it should be funded--in the Labor-HHS-Education appropriations measure. However, some members are complaining about the overall cost of the bill and the cost of the war effort, so the fate of the measure remains somewhat unclear. Domestic spending in the bill may be considered in separate legislation.

Meanwhile, is it any wonder that the federal debt continues to soar? Congress continues to use backdoor funding to pay for priorities. If the Pell program is the priority it appears to be, it should be funded through the normal appropriations process. At the very least, if money is to be included in a supplemental, offsetting cuts should be found elsewhere. CRFB warned previously of slipping in programs in the stimulus that are intended to be permanent, now we are sadly seeing that come about.

This is another instance of the failure of the budget process. That is why the Peterson-Pew Commission on Budget Reform is studying the process and will issue recommendations for an improved budget process later this year.