Shock Report: 86% Of Federal Spending Is Now On Autopilot

Budget: What if we told you that the vast majority of the federal spending doesn’t require annual approval from Congress? Crazy, right? Yet, that’s exactly what’s going on now.




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Anyone who’s taken a civics class might think that the federal government can only spend what Congress authorizes it to spend each year. But it turns out that the vast majority of spending doesn’t require any such approval from lawmakers.

$3.2 Trillion

The new report from the Government Accountability Office — a federal auditing agency — shows that of the $3.7 trillion the federal government spent in 2015, $3.2 trillion of it didn’t require authorization by Congress that year. In other words, Congress only specifically approved 14% of what the federal government spent that year.

So how is the rest of the money spent? The answer gets a little wonky, but it’s critical for the public to understand.

Over the years, Congress has passed laws that allow federal spending without any annual congressional approval. The biggest chunk is for so-called “entitlement programs” like Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid and welfare. Congress provided these programs with “permanent appropriations.” Spending levels are set automatically, based on eligibility rules and benefit amounts.

Most people know about these programs. In 2015, they accounted for $2.6 trillion in spending authority.

However, Congress has granted federal agencies a variety of other ways to spend money without having to get approval from lawmakers each year. As the GAO notes, these include contract authority, borrowing authority, and “offsetting collections.”

Offsetting collections refers to fees, fines or charges for permits. Congress then lets agencies spend that money on their own.

Explosion In Spending

Over the years, this kind of autopilot spending authority exploded from $1.7 trillion in 1994 to $3.2 trillion by 2015. That’s an 87% increase, after adjusting for inflation.

Permanent appropriations — to fund entitlements — climbed 81% over those years. But “offsetting collections” rocketed up by 126%. In 2015, federal agencies spent more than $421 billion this way. And contract authority — by which Congress lets agencies under certain conditions spend money before Congress approves it — has climbed 166% to $165 billion.

The GAO says that this federal spending authority is supposed to provide federal agencies with greater flexibility, because they can run programs without having to wait for Congressional approval each year.

Irresponsible Lawmakers

But it really amounts to an abdication of responsibility on the part of elected officials.

By putting more and more of the government on autopilot, lawmakers — both Republicans and Democrats — can wash their hands of most of the federal budget. Sure, Congress can change the rules to rein in entitlements, offsetting collections, and the like. But if it does nothing — the easiest road for lawmakers to take — the spending happens anyway.

Congress may not have any incentive to change this. But certainly a businessman like President Trump can see that — with deficits climbing back to $1 trillion and the national debt at $22 trillion — this is no way for the federal government to do business.

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