$3.7 billion for border crisis: Should GOP insist on spending 'offsets'?

Extra funds to deal with the flood of migrant women and children at the US border, which Obama requested Tuesday, must be offset by spending cuts elsewhere, some Republicans argue. Several factors, though, weigh against that approach.

Eric Gay/AP/File
Immigrants from Honduras and El Salvador who crossed the US-Mexico border illegally are stopped in Granjeno, Texas, June 25. President Barack Obama has asked Congress for $3.7 billion to cope with a tide of minors from Central America who are illegally crossing the US border.

Any extra funds provided to address a US border emergency – money sought Tuesday in a request by President Obama – should be offset by cuts elsewhere in the budget, some Republicans in Congress say.

The "offsets" strategy is a familiar one – and Republican lawmakers have used it to restrain federal spending over the past few years. Now, however, the "fiscal discipline" card may prove difficult to play against the president amid a tide of unaccompanied minors surging across America’s southern border.

That's because spending that qualifies as an “emergency” – such as a natural disaster or in this case the humanitarian crisis along the border – historically gets a pass. It’s rare for Congress to insist on fully paying for the new spending with other budget cuts or tax hikes, budget experts say. 

Several other factors in this case weigh against a broad-based Republican push for what budget bean-counters call “offsets.”

First, with the health and well-being of young children on the line, it could be politically risky for the Republican Party to be viewed as fomenting a squabble over how to pay for response efforts.

Second, the money the White House is asking for is not a large amount in budgetary terms, at $3.7 billion.

Third, other fiscal matters will demand Congress's attention in the near future, including the larger cost of sustaining a highway-repair fund that’s close to running dry.

“Normally we would not even think about offsetting” an emergency spending measure, and Mr. Obama’s requests this week “fit the definition of emergency,” says Steve Bell, a fiscal policy expert at the Bipartisan Policy Center in Washington.

Emergency or not, that extra border spending should be paid for through other budget cuts, a few prominent Republicans have urged this week. 

"Absolutely it ought to be offset," said Sen. Richard Shelby of Alabama, the senior Republican on the Appropriations Committee in the Democratic-controlled Senate. He suggests that the money be carved from the health-care law known as Obamacare.

Some conservative fiscal analysts take a similar stance.

Romina Boccia at the Heritage Foundation argues that “Congress should not authorize an additional $3.7 billion in deficit spending.” Given an already “massive” domestic budget, she says there is no reason Congress could not channel more money toward the border “within the current $492 billion cap under the Budget Control Act.”

The Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, a fiscal-policy watchdog group backed by some former lawmakers from both major parties, makes its own case for offsets. It points to the high debt level as a reason for spending restraint at a time when lawmakers are considering everything from the renewal of business tax breaks to health care for veterans.

“On each of these issues,” including the border crisis, “Congress should fully pay for any policy changes without relying on accounting gimmicks or waiving budget rules,” the group’s president, Maya MacGuineas, said in a statement released Tuesday.

Despite the drumbeats of concern about budget deficits, Mr. Bell says it’s a rarity for Congress to demand offsets in a supplemental bill (on top of a fiscal year’s normal spending) that’s prompted by an emergency.

Often such emergencies relate to natural disasters such as hurricanes. Bell says the border crisis also appears to fit squarely under the emergency definition, given the surprisingly large scale of the problem and its mix of national-security and humanitarian elements.

Coming days will tell where the offset debate goes. It may be telling that in the Republican-controlled House, Appropriations Committee Chairman Harold Rogers didn’t refer to possible offsets in his initial response to Obama’s request.

Although Obama’s request isn’t large relative to overall federal spending, which exceeds $3 trillion a year, it still represents substantial chunks of money that the administration wants to use for a range of purposes: heightened border security, sending immigrants back to their home countries, expediting judicial proceedings on their status, and “appropriate care for those apprehended” while they are in federal custody. (In his request, Obama also sought $615 million in emergency funds for fighting wildfires.)

Conservatives' concerns go beyond just how to pay for Obama's plan. Advocates for tight border controls say the immigration-related funding should be approved only with proper controls attached regarding how the funds are used. The group NumbersUSA, for example, is urging voters to send messages to their representatives in Congress, demanding the emergency funds not be approved unless a 2008 law is also changed to make it easier to deport unaccompanied foreign minors from nations such as Guatemala.

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