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Enhancing Transparency over Emergency Spending Reporting: A Call for Executive Accountability

Romina Boccia and Dominik Lett

On April 10, 2023, Congress terminated the three‐​year‐​long COVID-19 national emergency—one of the most expensive emergency declarations ever at more than $7 trillion in spending, as reported by the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget and the Heritage Foundation. Whenever such emergency declarations occur, the president is required by law to submit spending reports to Congress. With respect to the COVID-19 spending, President Biden apparently has not done so.

Based on press releases, letters to the administration, and congressional floor speeches, the administration has reportedly failed to follow the law. Failure to report emergency expenditures undermines transparency and accountability. This needs to change.

The National Emergencies Act (NEA), enacted in 1976, exists to limit the executive’s emergency powers. It requires the president to submit a spending summary for each ongoing national emergency to Congress every six months. The president must also send a final total ninety days after an emergency declaration ends. NEA expenditure reports are supposed to encompass any spending that is “directly attributable” to a national emergency declaration.

A major impediment to holding the executive accountable for ignoring emergency spending reporting requirements is that these reports are not easy to trace. NEA spending reports are not typically published online and the few that are lack detail as shown by this compilation of Treasury Department emergency expenditure reports. Greater transparency is essential in policing executive emergency spending abuses. Congress should revise NEA expenditure reporting rules to ensure they are as comprehensive as practicable and easily accessible to both legislators and the public.

Follow the Money

Emergency spending reporting requirements are intended to shed light on how taxpayer dollars are used during emergencies. Yet, the current system is convoluted. No centralized repository exists for NEA expenditure reports, and the executive can choose to whom in Congress to submit them, often leading to inaccessible records. Full‐​text versions of these reports are usually confined to internal congressional committee records.

For these reasons, the public usually only hears about major executive emergency abuses, such as President Trump’s border wall funding and President Biden’s student loan cancellations. The public is left in the dark about more insidious executive emergency spending abuse. This obscures the full scope of emergency spending.

On the heels of one of the most wasteful emergency spending splurges in U.S. history, legislators and the public should demand greater accountability from the executive by requiring more detailed and transparent emergency spending reporting.

Congress could amend the Congressionally Mandated Reports Act to make NEA reports available online. This would make the reports easy to locate for researchers and legislators, aiding Congress and the public in holding the executive accountable. Moreover, Congress could further define the format and content of NEA expenditure reports to add additional accounting details (something already done for some types of disaster assistance).

Senator Roger Marshall (R‑KS) and Representative Paul Gosar (R‑AZ) recently introduced the National Emergency Expenditure Reporting Transparency Act in the Senate and House, respectively. It would amend the Federal Funding Accountability and Transparency Act to include future NEA expenditure reports. Doing so would allow concerned legislators and members of the public to easily search for NEA‐​related funds.

The Bigger Issue

Emergency spending abuse goes hand in hand with expansive emergency powers. For decades, Congress has delegated away an array of emergency powers to the president. The progressive Brennan Center identifies more than 135 statutory powers that may become available when a president declares a national emergency. Thanks in part due to never‐​ending NEA declarations, Americans now live in a constant state of emergency.

As Cato’s Gene Healy explains, “emergency rule is a bipartisan temptation.” In 2018, President Trump invoked emergency powers to divert nearly $4 billion in military construction funds for a border wall against Congress’ wishes. As Trump himself noted, “I didn’t need to do this, but I’d rather do it much faster.”

President Biden similarly used emergency powers late last year in an attempt to cancel $430 billion in student loan debt. The Supreme Court shot down Biden’s scheme but didn’t stop Trump’s border funding.

Congress should rein in emergency spending powers instead of relying on the Supreme Court to police an overeager executive. The ARTICLE ONE Act would be a great start. The bill overhauls the NEA framework by having presidential emergency declarations automatically expire unless Congress affirmatively extends them.

As it stands, the emergency “state of exception” has become the norm. Congress should amend the NEA, the Congressionally Mandated Reports Act, and/​or the Federal Funding Accountability and Transparency Act to require easily accessible and detailed accounts of emergency expenditures. One key step toward limiting abuse of emergency spending powers is for legislators and the public to better understand the full size and scope of emergency spending.

Congress should hold the executive accountable. They can start by requiring stricter reporting about executive emergency expenditures.

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