White House Releases Supplemental Immigration Request

The White House this week requested an additional $4.3 billion in discretionary appropriations for the current fiscal year to cover the cost of the "urgent humanitarian situation" involving Central American children crossing the Southern border and to pay for fighting this summer's wildfires. $3.7 billion is dedicated to the situation at the border, while $615 million more for wildfires will likely provide enough funding for the whole wildfire season.

Of the additional funding for the migrant situation, about half ($1.8 billion) would go to the Department of Health and Human Services to provide medical and other care for refugee children. The Department of Homeland Security would receive $1.4 billion to cover the additional costs associated with increased arrests and deportations. The request includes $300 million of international assistance given to governments or non-profits in Central American countries to address the "root causes" of migration, including for economic support and to provide services and community support to the migrants that are most likely to attempt a return.

Administration Supplemental Spending Request by Category (billions of dollars)
Category FY 2015 Spending
Services and medical care for child refugees $1.8 billion
Apprehending, prosecuting, and removing undocumented families $1.4 billion
Repatriation of migrants and aid to Central American countries $300 million
Other increased enforcement and surveillance $177 million
Additional 40 immigration judges and other legal costs $64 million
Subtotal, Immigration Request $3.7 billion
Wildfire Funding $615 million
Total, President's Request $4.3 billion

 Source: OMB

The funding requested by the Administration would see spending rise above the current statutory caps, and would be designated as an emergency supplemental appropriation. The Budget Control Act specifically set up an emergency designation to deal with concerns that are sudden, urgent, unforeseen, and temporary. Unlike past cases where Congress abused the emergency designation to justify everything from reforming the VA to funding the census, the emergency designation is being used appropriately here. Still, it would be preferable for lawmakers to offset the additional spending with future savings.

Importantly, lawmakers should not use supplementals next year if they need increased funding for the same situation. The problem would be no longer unforeseen, so the additional spending should fit within the discretionary spending caps that Congress has set.

The President is also requesting $615 million in additional funds for wildfire fighting, enough to cover the projected costs for this summer's wildfire season. Currently, the wildfire account is funded based on the average amount spent over the past 10 years, but with increasingly bad fire seasons, fire accounts have been underfunded for 8 of the last 10 years. In years where this supplemental funding is not provided, the Departments of Agriculture, Interior, and the U.S. Forest Service have transferred funds from maintenance and safety accounts, delaying investments in fire prevention to pay for the short-term costs of fighting fires. If Congress wishes to stop this sort of account robbing, they should provide full funding for wildfires in the regular budget process, rather than relying on passing emergency appropriations when the bills actually come due.

Not only does the proposal request funds for 2014, but it makes changes to the spending caps to allow additional spending on wildfires for the next 10 years. The new caps state that 70 percent of the average wildfire funding would continue to be funded out of the discretionary base budget, but 30 percent (which roughly is the cost of the largest 1 percent of fires) and any additional funding needed that year would not be subject to the overall limit on discretionary spending, but a separate cap on wildfire spending – up to $1.4 billion for FY 2015 increasing up to $2.7 billion by FY 2022-2024, or as much as much as $21 billion over the next ten years. The additional amount spent on wildfires would be carved out from the separate cap for disaster spending, so that any money spent on fighting these very large fires would not be available for other disasters. However, CBO has predicted that the calculated increase in wildfire caps will likely be larger than the decrease in disaster caps, allowing more spending than would otherwise occur.

This wildfire proposal adds certainty to the budget process by providing an accounting mechanism for future wildfire funding and ending the need to Congress to continually pass emergency supplemental bills for wildfires. However, by shifting some of the discretionary budget outside the spending limits and by incorrectly adjusting the disaster spending caps, it allows some spending that would not otherwise occur and would increase the deficit.

Emergency spending poses a special challenge for responsible budgeting because it is inherently unpredictable. A report by the Peterson-Pew Commission recommended reforming emergency spending to include an amount for expected emergency spending in the annual budget.  These emergencies serve as good reminders why should tackle our debt now and get more fiscal space, so there is breathing room to increase the debt if needed in an unforeseen crisis.