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WLRN has partnered with PolitiFact to fact-check Florida politicians. The Pulitzer Prize-winning team seeks to present the true facts, unaffected by agenda or biases.

PolitiFact FL: Gaetz oversells role of budgetary dysfunction in adding to the federal debt

Rep. Matt Gaetz speaks to reporters on the steps of the Capitol.
Mark Schiefelbein
/
AP
Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla., one of House Speaker Kevin McCarthy's harshest critics, speaks to reporters on the steps of the Capitol in Washington, Monday, Oct. 2, 2023.

WLRN has partnered with PolitiFact to fact-check Florida politicians. The Pulitzer Prize-winning team seeks to present the true facts, unaffected by agenda or biases.

Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla., has been at the center of two major political stories in Washington, D.C. — the fight over keeping funds flowing to operate the federal government, and the possible move by breakaway Republicans to oust House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif.

On Oct. 1, the day after lawmakers agreed to send legislation to President Joe Biden that would fund the government through Nov. 17, Gaetz appeared on ABC’s "This Week."

In the interview, Gaetz said he would lead an effort to oust McCarthy. One of the reasons, he said, was that he and his allies believed that McCarthy wasn’t pursuing spending cuts aggressively enough.

"Since the mid-'90s, this country has been governed by revolving continuing resolution and omnibus spending bill(s). … That is the reason we're $33 trillion in debt."

In congressional terminology, a "continuing resolution" (or "CR" for short) refers to a short-term spending bill that extends government funding at existing levels so that congressional negotiators can work out a longer-term spending bill. And an "omnibus spending bill" is one that extends most or all of government funding, rather than being passed in 12 separate bills that each cover a limited range of federal departments, as the congressional appropriations process was designed to work.

Lawmakers have resorted to continuing resolutions and omnibus bills for the better part of three decades. But Gaetz is wrong to point to such practices as the primary driver of the federal debt because most federal spending does not even pass through the annual appropriations process.

The types of federal spending approved in appropriations bills have played a role in adding to the federal debt, but they account for far less than entitlements such as Social Security and Medicare, plus interest on the federal debt, said Chris Towner, policy director for the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, a Washington, D.C.-based group that tracks the federal budget. Gaetz’s office did not respond to an inquiry for this article.

The federal spending process since the 1990s

In recent decades, Congress has largely sidestepped the process of "regular order." Under that process, 12 separate appropriations bills are approved by each chamber’s subcommittees, passed in each chamber, reconciled, passed again in identical form and sent to the president to be signed.

Although appropriators in the House and Senate have often tried to pass the 12 spending bills individually, such efforts have typically gotten bogged down in disputes, either between Republicans and Democrats, the House and the Senate, the Congress and the president or among members within one party.

This has regularly left lawmakers scrambling as funding nears a lapse. In that scenario, the options are either to pass a continuing resolution and continue negotiating, or hammer out a massive omnibus measure that can secure majorities in both chambers.

"In the nearly five decades that the current system for budgeting and spending tax dollars has been in place, Congress has passed all its required appropriations measures on time only four times," the Pew Research Center, a nonpartisan research group, wrote earlier this year.

Those were in fiscal years 1977, 1989, 1995 and 1997.

At times, Congress has managed to bundle together and pass a few spending bills in small groups known as "minibuses." But even then, the remaining spending bills have stalled, producing continuing resolutions and omnibus bills.

What has driven the federal debt?

Where Gaetz gets it wrong is his assertion linking these procedures to the nation’s $33 trillion federal debt.

The money allocated by Congress — either through the 12-bill regular order process or through a mix of continuing resolutions and omnibus bills — is known as discretionary spending. By law, Congress and the president need to approve this spending on an annual basis. This spending covers a wide spread, including the military, border security, medical research and the FBI.

Although discretionary spending covers a wide range of subjects, it’s relatively small in the overall federal budget.

In 2022, discretionary spending accounted for a bit more than one-quarter of all federal spending. Of this, 11% went for defense, and the remaining 14% went for other areas.

What else is federal spending going toward?

Mandatory spending, sometimes called entitlement spending, includes Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid and veterans’ benefits. It’s a big one. Spending for these programs continues based on how many Americans are eligible to receive these benefits. Their funds do not depend on Congress’ annual appropriations process. In effect, these programs run on autopilot unless and until lawmakers and the president agree on laws to curb their expenditures.

In 2022, a little more than two-thirds of federal outlays went toward mandatory spending.

Finally, 7% of federal spending in 2022 went for interest, which is another category that does not get paid based on annual appropriations.

So although the continuing resolutions and omnibus bills Gaetz cited have produced some of the nation’s federal debt by increasing the amount of discretionary spending, they are not the primary reason "why we're $33 trillion in debt." Collectively, entitlements and interest — which have nothing to do with continuing resolutions and omnibus bills — account for the lion’s share.

Gaetz’ statement also ignores the revenue side. Tax laws are not approved through the appropriations process.

"Simply talking about CRs and omnibus means you are only talking about discretionary spending, not expansions like Medicare Part D, tax cuts, increased Medicaid, Medicare Advantage, or greater farm subsidies," said Steve Ellis, president of Taxpayers for Common Sense, a Washington, D.C.-based group that tracks the federal budget.

One reason mandatory spending has become such a big portion of federal spending is the U.S. population is aging. Baby boomers are now drawing from Social Security and Medicare.

Ellis said there are a few other categories of spending that have been undertaken outside of continuing resolutions and omnibus bills in recent years, including military spending that is categorized as "supplemental" and "overseas contingency operations."

"While the broken budgeting situation makes it harder to scrutinize all spending and offer amendments, it is hardly why we’re $33 trillion in debt," Ellis said.

Our ruling

Gaetz said, "Since the mid-'90s, this country has been governed by revolving continuing resolution and omnibus spending bill. … That is the reason we're $33 trillion in debt."

Lawmakers have been unable to use 12 "regular order" appropriations bills to enact federal spending for the better part of three decades. Instead, they’ve lurched from temporary bills to massive "omnibus" measures on a regular basis.

However, blaming the nation’s debt on the lack of following standard appropriations procedures is an exaggeration. Only about one-quarter of federal spending is approved through the annual appropriations process; about three-quarters runs on autopilot, including mandatory spending and interest payments.

We rate the statement Half True.

Our Sources

Louis Jacobson has been with PolitiFact since 2009, currently as senior correspondent.
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