Government Waste

'Emergency' Spending Is Out of Control

Congress has authorized over $12 trillion in emergency spending over the past three decades.


Emergencies are, by definition, unexpected and urgent situations requiring immediate action—except in Congress, where the term is increasingly used to justify spending decisions that should be part of the normal budget process.

Congress has authorized more than $12 trillion in emergency spending over the past three decades, according to a report released in January by the Cato Institute. About half of that total was spent in direct response to the Great Recession and the COVID-19 pandemic, but much of the other half was used for purposes that strain the definition of emergency.

Because emergency spending bypasses some of the scrutiny applied to the normal budgetary process, it has become a convenient way for lawmakers and presidents to hike spending—and add to the national debt. In 2023 alone, Congress and President Joe Biden proposed using emergency spending for many obviously nonemergency situations—including the items listed below.

  • $600 million to replace existing airplanes, intended to be operational through 2030 to begin with, used for weather forecasting
  • $500 million to cover higher-than-expected fuel costs for military vehicles
  • $347 million for prison construction and related costs
  • $278 million to accelerate ongoing construction of a new research center at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory
  • $100 million for grants to local law enforcement to protect the 2024 presidential nominating conventions

"We must not let fiscally irresponsible legislators hoodwink their colleagues and the public into accepting spending increases by slapping the 'emergency' label on them and calling it a day." —Romina Boccia, director of budget and entitlement policy, Cato Institute