- - Monday, September 17, 2018


House Speaker Paul D. Ryan cheered the passage of a package of three spending bills as “the revitalization of our appropriations process.” The Wisconsin Republican also opined: “Funding the government is one of Congress‘ most basic responsibilities, and this conference report is a strong first act.”

He isn’t wrong about the process. Congress hasn’t completed annual appropriations on time in 21 years.

But just passing bills isn’t enough. What’s in those bills matters. A lot.

Congress has rung up $21.4 trillion in debt and is on track to add another $985 billion in fiscal 2019. Appropriations bills that increase nonessential spending only exacerbate this crushing debt burden. And that’s exactly what this “minibus” does.

It covers energy and water, military construction and veterans affairs, and the legislative branch. And it jacks up spending almost across the board.

Take the Energy Department, for example. Virtually every one of its nondefense activities got an increase — despite the large number of opportunities to do some trimming. A small sampling includes:

$15 million to figure out how to increase the use of natural gas vehicles.

$18 million for research and development into HVAC and refrigeration systems.

$20 million for wind test facilities and demonstrations.

$20 million for SuperTruck II — a truck efficiency program.

$4.2 million for “improvements in the steel industry.”

The list goes on. And on.

It’s not that R&D to advance energy technologies and resources are bad. But it’s highly problematic that Congress insists on footing the bill for work that the private sector can and should do on its own. Why should taxpayers have to subsidize private companies to be more efficient? That’s the companies’ job, and they can probably do it faster and cheaper than Uncle Sam.

There’s another problem associated with federal funding of R&D. It plucks the power to pick winners and losers from the “invisible hand” of the marketplace and places it in the hands of bureaucrats. Their judgment may be wrong, no matter how well-intentioned.

Moreover, when the government backs one project, it signals that the chosen approach is less risky or more promising than alternatives not receiving funding. That implication distorts private-sector investment decisions and encourages cronyism. Ultimately, federal intervention narrows the scope of innovation.

Ironically, the minibus puts a zero next to one project where more spending would have been appropriate: finishing the review of a nuclear waste repository at Yucca Mountain. Congress‘ now routine failure to make a decision on Yucca Mountain has cost taxpayers $6.2 billion in legal settlements, with more to come.

In addition to not taking spending cuts seriously, the energy and water section of the minibus fails to restrain federal regulatory overreach — another missed opportunity.

For example, the House-passed version of the bill would have repealed the 2015 “waters of the U.S.” (WOTUS) rule. The Obama administration spent money to lobby for its own rule in clear violation of the Antideficiency Act.

Yet Congress never took the administration to task, and by dropping WOTUS repeal from the minibus, it is punting again. Congressional engagement is desperately needed to clarify confusion in the courts and put an end to this overreaching rule by the Environmental Protection Agency and the Army Corps of Engineers.

The bill also continues to implicitly legitimize the executive branch’s use of the “social cost of carbon,” a highly problematic, subjective metric that lets agencies exaggerate the benefits of regulation or inflate the costs of a new project. Yet the minibus axed a House-approved provision to block agencies from using the “social cost of carbon” in regulations or guidance.

Federal bureaucrats continue to overreach their authority, and Congress keeps extending their leash. If federal lawmakers can’t cut small programs or use the power of the purse to check regulatory excesses, how will it successfully tackle the bigger issues driving the current spending surge?

The minibus may be evidence of a “revitalized appropriations process.” But as a “first act,” it’s weak.

Katie Tubb is a policy analyst specializing in energy and environmental issues for The Heritage Foundation’s Roe Institute for Economic Policy Studies.

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