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Sen. Jim Bunning, R-Ky. (AP/Photo by Harry Hamburg)

'Emergency spending'

Congress | Despite its 'pay-as-you-go' rule, Congress continues to add billions of dollars to the deficit

WASHINGTON-Last year President Obama explained why he supported the "pay-as-you-go" or "PAYGO" rule, which requires Congress to have a dollar for every dollar it spends: "Paying for what you spend is basic common sense. Perhaps that's why here in Washington it has been so elusive."

That common sense has been elusive in Washington since the House reinstated the rule in 2007-and before. Republicans left PAYGO by the wayside in the early years of the Bush administration. Since the rule was reinstated, however, the chamber has continued passing bills without a way to pay for them-like the $787 billion stimulus last year and the bailouts the year before. Last June President Obama announced that he would commit to PAYGO rules and urged Congress to codify them.

Congress passed the PAYGO rule into law one month ago. Since then the House and Senate have been passing bills costing more than $100 billion, money the government doesn't have.

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How is this possible? Congress can rather easily circumvent the law, which doesn't apply to discretionary spending-40 percent of the federal budget. The law also doesn't govern "emergency spending," which is what legislators labeled the stimulus bill. A jobs bill, tax credit extensions, and unemployment benefit extensions that are in the works in Congress have also earned the "emergency spending" label.

Sen. Jim Bunning, R-Ky., came under fire last week for single-handedly blocking a Senate bill that included an extension of unemployment benefits. He argued on Fox News, "It wasn't about unemployment benefits; it was about paying for what we spend or paying for legislation."

Wednesday a bipartisan Senate passed the $140 billion bill in question that included, in addition to unemployment benefits, an extension of COBRA health insurance, tax credit extensions, and aid to states for Medicaid. The bill is expected to add $130 billion to the deficit.

The bill runs parallel to a $154 billion bill in the House that emphasizes more investments in infrastructure than in tax credits. Congress is also working to complete a jobs bill that will cost upward of $15 billion.

Fiscally conscious politicians are facing conflicting demands in an election year: They have to rein in a federal deficit that is at an all-time high, but also want to prove through legislation they are fighting to bring jobs back to a stricken economy.

Emily Belz
Emily Belz

Emily, who has covered everything from political infighting to pet salons for The Indianapolis Star, The Hill, and the New York Daily News, reports for WORLD from New York City. Follow Emily on Twitter @emzleb.

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