Amid the worsening coronavirus outbreak, it’s no secret that the recent flurry of emergency measures are going to drastically worsen the federal budget outlook when there already isn’t much slack on the line — and that nearly no one cares. As Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said recently, “this is not the time.”

He’s probably right. But with a projected trillion-dollar deficit even before coronavirus, monstrous debt is not going away, and it raises the stakes as the world economy grapples with a new normal.

In times like this, the expectation is that fiscal and monetary policy should work together, and this is no easy task. Bridgewater founder Ray Dalio explained it this way: “With interest rates near zero, monetary policy alone cannot be very stimulative … we are now in the part of the long-term debt cycle when there needs to be good coordination between fiscal and monetary policymakers.”

In part for those reasons, Congress is currently working on its third round of fiscal support, and the Federal Reserve has already made $1.5 trillion in capital available to the marketplace, slashed interest rates to 0 percent and launched a massive round of quantitative easing. Additional measures in Congress are also in the pipeline.

Perhaps these panicked measures are sufficient to squelch the current fears of Main Street and Wall Street. But Congress’s habit of throwing everything but the kitchen sink into supplemental funding packages should raise questions about our budgetary preparedness for dealing with such crises.

This preparedness has been gutted by Congress’s recent habit of passing nearly everything as part of an “emergency” or “must-pass” packages. Now, it is unclear whether lawmakers can address a real crisis when it faces one.

Before 2005, only the 9/11 terrorist attacks were followed by supplemental appropriations of more than $20 billion. More recently, it seems that “emergency” bills are all that Congress can pass. Last year, there was $4.5 billion in supplemental funding for operations at the southern border and another $18 billion in aid for wildfire and hurricane relief. A subsequent $20 billion in further funding for Puerto Rico failed but is likely to return. That was after the Bipartisan Budget Act of 2018 provided nearly $90 billion in new hurricane aid to Texas, Florida and Puerto Rico and raised federal budget caps by $300 billion over just two years.

If the Stafford Act led to off-budget spending, lawmakers’ responses to the 2011 Budget Control Act (BCA) cemented it, as they realized they could get around statutory limits if priorities were shoved into “emergency” packages or “contingency” funds.

Of course, we are currently being reminded that real contingencies and real emergencies exist, and the government must spend more when disaster strikes. We do not know what’s going to happen with coronavirus, what it’s going to do to our economy or whether currently discussed measures will be enough. What we do know is that economic shocks like this one will happen in the future, and it’s nearly impossible to deal with them when we’re already up to our eyeballs in debt.

Deficit spending, particularly in times of a booming economy, simply makes it worse when a real crisis hits. More importantly, there is a better way of dealing with crises to begin with.

Almost all states have some form of balanced budget requirement, and along with that comes the existence of budget stabilization funds, or “rainy-day funds.” The funds are implemented differently from state-to-state, but the idea is simple: In times of prosperity, states are able to put aside funds that can be used later.

Rainy-day funds played a huge role for states in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, when many saw their funds depleted as they dealt with unexpected shortfalls. Since then – and in sharp contrast to the federal budget – state funds have largely rebounded so that over half are in a better position than before 2008.

Many experts believe that this model can be replicated at the federal level. In fact, there is already a fund at the federal level for natural disasters, but the Disaster Relief Fund (DRF) isn’t money that’s put aside from surpluses, but rather an explicit appropriation like any other provided by Congress.

Some might assert that we can simply appropriate funding for pandemic preventive measures like we do disaster funding. But no matter how we respond to this crisis, it should demonstrate instead that the old way of doing business isn’t working that well. Congress should be thinking more broadly and treating our budgetary situation holistically.

Eventually, this crisis will be gone, whether in six weeks or six months, and America will be in no better position for the next pandemic than we are today. Being better prepared next time means making sure we’re in a position of strength when the time comes. And doing that means doing all we can to avoid massive deficits and unwise fiscal policy in times of crisis — but especially when times are good.

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Topics: Budget & Appropriations