Congress Already Sees Need to Evade Spending Caps in a Debt Deal

  • Disaster aid, other spending likely to fall outside caps
  • Future Congresses may change caps altogether

Bloomberg Government subscribers get the stories like this first. Act now and gain unlimited access to everything you need to know. Learn more.

Lawmakers pushing to cap spending as part of a debt-limit deal already acknowledge the funding limitations won’t be airtight, as members expect exemptions for emergency spending and maybe even wholesale cap increases.

Hurricanes, public health emergencies, and wars are among the most likely candidates for exemptions to any spending caps created under a debt-limit deal, said Bill Hoagland, senior vice president at the Bipartisan Policy Center and a longtime former Senate Republican aide. And if the 10-year spending cap regimen created under the 2011 debt-limit standoff is any indication, lawmakers may negotiate increases to the caps themselves, as lawmakers did every two years for most of the decade.

Photographer: Nathan Howard/Bloomberg
Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) speaks to members of the media at the US Capitol in Washington, DC, on Tuesday.

House Republicans tasked with writing government funding bills agree cap exemptions are likely, especially for natural disasters.

“I would think it would be very unlikely that we would try to put disaster relief inside the caps,” Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.), a senior appropriator, told reporters Tuesday. He added that “there’ll always be some pressure” to expand the caps.

Rep. Robert Aderholt (R-Ala.) said Tuesday cap exemptions would likely see broad support “if there’s a real emergency need for it,” though he said Republicans will want to “be careful in how we define emergency needs.”

Rep. John Carter (R-Texas) agreed, adding constituents shouldn’t worry about Congress’s willingness to respond to natural disasters.

“I’ve never seen a Congress fail to respond to emergencies in the 20 years I’ve been in Congress,” Carter said Monday.

Past Caps Saw Raises, Exemptions

Republicans included 10 years of discretionary spending caps in the debt-limit bill they passed in the House, first aiming to cut $131 billion in spending and then limiting growth to 1% a year. The 10-year plan echoes the decade of caps created after the 2011 debt-limit fight. Congress regularly agreed to lift those caps in a series of two-year deals starting in 2013. That could happen again, Aderholt said.

“I would expect within two years, there would be a discussion about it,” Aderholt said of changing the caps. “Obviously, you can’t control what another Congress does.”

That doesn’t mean it’s pointless to agree to more than two years of spending caps, because the initial deal sets “a line of demarcation,” Aderholt added.

Under the previous set of spending caps, Congress often relied on emergency supplemental spending bills — exempt from the caps — to respond to natural disasters. It’s safe to expect similar treatment for future hurricanes, wildfires, earthquakes, floods, and other disasters, which have increased in frequency and cost, Hoagland said. The Covid-19 pandemic was another example of a major event that prompted massive cap-exempt spending, he added.

“Ten years is a long time,” Hoagland said in a phone interview. “And I think that you have to be realistic about the fact that they’ll probably be adjusted, as they were the last time we had 10-year caps.”

Democrats aren’t satisfied with the expectation of future exemptions to the spending caps. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.) criticized the effects of the last decade of spending caps and said lawmakers should debate spending levels through the usual budget and appropriations process.

“It was a nightmare to live under a decade of caps with a sequester,” Wasserman Schultz said in a hallway interview Tuesday. “We have caps every year. They’re called the top lines in the allocations that we set in the appropriations process.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Jack Fitzpatrick in Washington at

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Giuseppe Macri at; Andrew Small at

Stay informed with more news like this – from the largest team of reporters on Capitol Hill – subscribe to Bloomberg Government today. Learn more.