by Mitch Kokai
Senior Political Analyst, John Locke Foundation
Analysts often speak figuratively about “out of control” federal spending, but a House subcommittee hearing this week showed that most federal spending quite literally is out of control.
As in, Congress doesn’t directly control it at all.
Instead, some 84 percent of all federal spending in 2015 (and likely a higher percentage now) consists of what subcommittee chairman Rep. Gary Palmer calls “backdoor spending” that Congress allows without providing explicit annual authority. In all, $3.2 trillion of the total federal budget that year of $3.8 trillion fell into this broad category. …
… As GAO described it, such spending includes not just the familiar “entitlements” such as Social Security and Medicare, which operate on a sort of autopilot based on fixed formulas for benefits, and not just the hundreds of billions of dollars in annual interest on the federal debt. Those are familiar, and overwhelming, examples of federal spending almost never changed by Congress’ annual appropriations process (and they constituted a rapidly growing $2.3 trillion of the $3.2 trillion at issue) but in themselves, they aren’t news.
Other types of backdoor spending include the contracting authority of five departments to obligate funds without advance congressional approval, the ability of some agencies to collect fees or fines and then spend that money without it reverting to the general federal treasury, and the “borrowing authority” some agencies exercise for uses such as income and price support to agricultural producers. In effect, even agencies subject to annual congressional appropriations have some sort of their own spending on something close to autopilot, and discretion over other parts, without line-item examination thereof by lawmakers.