Congressional shrug on emergency border spending could prove costly

Meredith Shiner, Yahoo News
Speaker of the House John Boehner, R-Ohio on Capitol Hill in Washington, Thursday, July 24, 2014. Republicans in the U.S. House of Representatives on Thursday, July 24, 2014, took another step toward authorizing a lawsuit against President Barack Obama, claiming he has overstepped his executive powers in carrying out his landmark healthcare reform law. (AP Photo)

House Speaker John Boehner has said repeatedly that House Republicans will not give President Barack Obama a “blank check” in response to the administration’s $3.7 billion request for emergency funding to deal with an influx of child migrants at the southern border.

But if Congress breaks for August recess without passing any sort of spending measure to deal with the crisis — which it appears increasingly likely to do — it would not just create bad political optics for lawmakers, especially objecting Republicans, heading into a midterm election. It could also end up increasing how much the federal government needs to spend to address the problem.

House Republicans are privately apprehensive about the possibility that members will go home without acting on a spending package, given that agencies have said their funding could run out as soon as mid-August. And the administration is telling Congress in briefings that delaying the funds could end up being more costly in the end, as the financial uncertainty is preventing the government from securing longer-term contracts, such as 12-month leases for shelter, which ultimately would be cheaper than more expensive short-term contracts for emergency spaces. And without additional funding, Customs and Border service won’t be able to hire additional agents or pay overtime, which means that agents who normally would be at the border will have to be diverted to guard duty at the temporary facilities where thousands of migrant children are being housed.

According to multiple congressional sources close to members briefed on the situation, a delay in funding would impose increased costs of $250 to $1,000 per child per day. Since Oct. 1, approximately 57,000 children have been apprehended at the border. To give an example of the magnitude of the $250 to $1,000 range — and the cost of congressional inaction — the collective price tag for one day of care for those children could range from $14.25 million to $57 million, a difference of $42.75 million per day.

The agencies themselves are hamstrung from finding more money from within their own coffers because of the separation of powers: Each agency has limited “transfer authority” to move funds from one pot of spending to another on an emergency basis, because they are mostly obligated to spend money as Congress has allotted it. For example, money appropriated to HHS to implement the health care law is required to be spent on that task and not others.

CLICK IMAGE for slideshow: In this June 19, 2014 photo, a 14-year-old Guatemalan girl traveling alone waits for a northbound freight train along with other Central American migrants, in Arriaga, Chiapas state, Mexico. The United States has seen a dramatic increase in the number of Central American migrants crossing into its territory, particularly children traveling without any adult guardian. More than 52,000 unaccompanied children have been apprehended since October. (AP Photo/Rebecca Blackwell)

House Republicans previously and repeatedly rejected requests from the administration to grant the Department of Homeland Security greater transfer authority through the general budgeting process — which, as the Congressional Research Service said, would have enabled the agency to “expedite response to a catastrophic event” and might have bought Republicans more time now to find a solution to the problem.

As it stands, Congress could go home, agencies could run out of cash, and lawmakers would not return to Washington until September. Even then, they wouldn’t likely address the issue until after dealing with a larger and even more urgent spending bill to avoid a government shutdown at the end of the month. They also would have to agree to some kind of supplemental spending deal, as the legislation expected by congressional insiders to pass will likely be a continuation of current law, which provides for spending levels lower than needed to address the crisis.

In a statement to Yahoo News, DHS spokesperson Marsha Catron reiterated DHS Secretary Jeh Johnson’s message to senators in a hearing July 10, that the money will run out and Congress has no choice but to appropriate funds, otherwise the operations at the border will stall or other operations could be compromised.

“Secretary Johnson has stressed that at the current DHS spending rate, given the need to surge resources and add detention capacity to address with this issue, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement will run out of money in mid-August, U.S. Customs and Border Protection will run out of money in mid-September and that doing nothing in Congress is not an option,” Catron said. “If Congress fails to act, DHS would be forced to divert resources from other operational missions or key acquisition programs within the Department, including jeopardizing the ability to continue our sustained response to this urgent situation.”

A House Republican source suggested that leaders are trying to find votes to move on a more modest spending plan without Democratic help, as House Democrats have suggested they will not support any bill that includes additional provisions that would change existing law outside the spending request. But even if Republicans can, which in itself is an uphill battle, Senate Democrats aren’t likely to agree to it either. Which means that as the crisis continues to grow at the border, Congress likely will continue its streak of inaction and go on vacation.