Politico: Biden's COVID response is on a "shoestring" budget, you know

Five trillion here, five trillion there, and sooner or later we’re talking about real money. At least that seems to be the message from this Politico report on the Biden administration’s sudden claims of poverty in the fight against COVID-19. Despite massive spending bills passed in the last two years that rang up nearly $6 trillion in excess off-budget spending to deal with COVID-19, Adam Cancryn writes that Joe Biden et al only has a “shoestring budget” to continue the pandemic fight:

A painful and foreboding reality is setting in for the White House as it enters a potentially dangerous stretch of the Covid fight: It may soon need to run its sprawling pandemic response on a shoestring budget.

Just two months after the administration unveiled a nearly 100-page roadmap out of the crisis, doubts are growing about Congress’ willingness to fund the nation’s fight. It has forced Biden officials to debate deep cuts to their Covid operation and game out ways to keep the federal effort afloat on a month-by-month basis.

Congress has been anything but reluctant to “fund the nation’s fight.” Cancryn writes that as if Congress and the Federal Reserve stood by and did nothing over the last two years. Instead, both partnered up to create the most massive short-term monetary expansion in modern memory to fund the executive branch’s COVID-19 efforts, largely on a “trust me” basis.

That’s what has changed, and for good reason.  No one really knows where more than $5.5 trillion in previous spending went, and certainly no one has been accountable for it. Biden himself demanded and got the final $1.9 trillion of relief/stimulus spending, but still has not accounted for how the American Rescue Plan funding got spent — or whether it got spent. Republicans have spent several months demanding some accountability for the funding that Biden already got before writing him another blank check.

Amazingly, Cancryn does not include a single mention of the American Rescue Plan, the CARES Act, or the intermediate funding bill passed in December 2020. There isn’t a single attempt to put this funding request in any perspective — only a spin effort to cast Congress as penurious and the Biden administration has hobbled by circumstances outside their control. Even if we just count Biden’s American Rescue Plan, Congress appropriated $1.9 trillion for the pandemic less than 14 months ago, which amounts to a monthly average spending rate of $135 billion dollars, assuming the money is now entirely gone.

That’s above and beyond normal budgetary spending too, which only will spend $1.52 trillion in discretionary spending for the entire fiscal year. Compare Biden’s monthly average spending to the annual spending appropriations for federal agencies in this year’s budget:

  • Defense: $728.5 billion, 38% of the American Rescue Plan (ARP) funding
  • Homeland Security: $57.5B, 3%
  • Veterans Admin/military construction: $127B, 6.7%
  • State Department: $56.1B, 3%
  • Labor-HHS-Education: $197B, 10.4%

On the last example, bear in mind that HHS got a large chunk of the off-budget appropriation in all three relief/stimulus bills, including Biden’s ARP. They have had at least hundreds of billions, if not trillions, of dollars in the last two years to fund their efforts.

Is that anyone’s idea of a “shoestring” budget?

Cancryn offers this ironic statement:

But as the government’s cash reserves dwindle, officials are increasingly concluding that these types of difficult choices will soon have to be made. And they are quietly preparing to shift responsibility for other key parts of the pandemic response to the private sector as early as 2023.

“There’s a great deal of concern that we’re going to be caught shorthanded,” said one person familiar with the discussions. “On the face of it, it’s absurd.”

It’s entirely absurd, especially since HHS has ample opportunity to ask for funding in the normal budget process. That could even have been accomplished in this fiscal year, when Congress put together and passed its omnibus bill in early March that completed the FY2022 budget. COVID-19 is no longer a surprise, nor is it an unexpected public-health issue. If the Biden administration wants more funding for the necessary actions to manage it, then Biden and his team should sharpen their pencils and offer a plan for spending to the appropriations committees. That plan should carry with it a lot more accountability than they’ve demonstrated so far, plus an explanation of where Biden’s $1.9 trillion went in the first place.