Delays in spending bills hamper agency planning

By late September, Congress had sent only three of the 13 annual appropriations bills to the president. So lawmakers calmly approved a continuing resolution to keep the federal government fully funded once the new fiscal year began on October 1. There was little question that the CR would pass. In fact, the Senate passed it by voice vote. And there is no question that until Congress finishes the remaining spending bills, the government will remain open as a result of additional CRs.

One sad reality of Washington is that CRs have become as routine as naming post offices after dead congressmen. But despite the routine way CRs are handled on Capitol Hill, they have a profound impact on the ability of federal departments and agencies to operate.

Since fiscal 1978, in only three years-fiscal 1989, 1995, and 1997-has Congress completed all of the appropriations bills on time and avoided resorting to a CR, according to data compiled by the Senate majority leader's office. The worst performance came in fiscal 1996, when then-House Speaker Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., led congressional Republicans in a game of budgetary chicken with President Clinton, resulting in a 26-day government shutdown. Ultimately, 14 CRs were needed before the spending bills were finally finished in April, nearly seven months into the fiscal year.

Since the Gingrich era, lawmakers don't seem to have the stomach for such showdowns. "I think everybody's learned their lesson that nobody wins" when the government closes, said G. William Hoagland, the chief budget and appropriations aide to Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., and the former staff director of the Senate Budget Committee. "CRs have become a way of life around here," Hoagland added. As long as the Senate is closely divided, he said, "it's fair to say we have moved to a world of CRs for the foreseeable future."

What often gets lost in the shuffle as Congress scrambles each fall to finish the appropriations bills and adjourn is that the "world of CRs" isn't so great for the government. During last fall's spending battle shortly before the 2002 elections, House Appropriations Committee Chairman Bill Young, R-Fla., predicted serious consequences if the government had to run on a CR through February or March of this year-which was ultimately what happened.

"A long-term continuing resolution that funds government operations at [previous-year] levels would have disastrous impacts on the war on terror, homeland security, and other important government responsibilities," Young warned in his memo. "It also would be fiscally irresponsible. It would fund low-priority programs the president has proposed to eliminate."

Before President Bush finally signed an omnibus appropriations package completing the fiscal 2003 bills in February, "we came pretty damn close" to layoffs at federal law enforcement agencies because of funding shortfalls, said John Scofield, a spokesman for the House Appropriations Committee.

CRs also wreak havoc on federal departments' drafting of their budgets each fall and winter, in preparation for the release of the president's budget request in February. When operating in the limbo of a CR, in which departmental budgets are unresolved, "how do you know what your full-year funding will be?" asked Jack Lew, who was the director of the Office of Management and Budget in the Clinton administration and now is executive vice president of New York University. "On the program side, you can't look down the road," Lew added. He said that, in such cases, departments and agencies often decide not to fill vacancies.

During the government shutdown of the winter of 1995-96, administration officials developed only a "nominal budget" for the next fiscal year, since the funding for so many key domestic programs was up in the air, Lew said. "Unless you assume static government, it's very difficult to build a budget," he said. "In our years, the issues that were open were the things we cared the most about-the entire domestic agenda."

Absent congressional approval of the annual spending bills, federal departments have no "baseline" for building their budget request for the next year, said an agency budget officer who served in the Clinton administration. "The baseline will depend on what happens this year," she said. "It's hypothetical." Typically, agencies are "pretty far along" in developing their plans by early fall and will already have submitted their budget requests to OMB, she said.

In addition, when Congress completes its work late, any new initiatives that were included in the final funding package may receive short shrift in the next year's budget, the budget officer said. "In the national dialogue, [any such initiative] loses its focus," she said. "You can lose a lot of momentum."

Despite the difficulties that delays create for federal departments and agencies, Congress cannot seem to find a way to pass the regular appropriations bills on time. Democrats are taking a hard line on the problem, even though during the years that they controlled Congress, CRs were just as common. The repeated use of CRs is an "indication of the complete failure of the legislative process," said Rep. Charles Stenholm, D-Texas, a leader of the Blue Dog Coalition of moderate House Democrats. "It's a failure. You can't sugarcoat it."

But some conservatives see no real harm in CRs. "There's a strong disposition to getting the work done," said an aide to the conservative House Republican Study Committee. Plus, since CRs are generally written to keep the government operating at the previous year's funding levels until the appropriations process is completed, a CR "may be better than agreeing to break the budget," the aide added.

House Appropriations Committee ranking member David Obey, D-Wis., blames Republican leaders for the delays, particularly since the GOP now controls the White House and both chambers of Congress. "It ought to be somewhat easier to get the work done on time," Obey said on the House floor recently. "What we have today is the majority party fighting with itself." He complained that Republicans knew that the strict spending caps they included in the fiscal 2004 budget resolution this spring would make it impossible to write the appropriations bills. "When the first step in the process is a false one, then everything else is screwed up," Obey asserted.

Republicans, needless to say, cite other reasons for the delays. Congress should "start the [appropriations] process as soon as possible," said Sen. John Sununu, R-N.H., who contended that appropriators frequently do not use June or July effectively.

In addition, the $87 billion supplemental funding request that Bush submitted in September for the missions in Iraq and Afghanistan is taking up a great deal of Congress's time, making it more difficult to pass the regular appropriations bills, Hoagland said.

Speaking more generally, Hoagland said that it's the controversial "nonfiscal issues, in combination with the close Senate, that are keeping us from getting the bills done." For instance, he noted that the issue of school vouchers has delayed the District of Columbia appropriations bill and that differences on overtime regulations have held up the Labor-Health and Human Services-Education funding measure. The appropriations process "is doing what the authorizing folks can't get done," Hoagland said.

To make matters more dysfunctional, delays in the process often result in Congress's bundling numerous appropriations bills into one large omnibus spending package. Since fiscal 1977, Congress has passed 16 such omnibus bills, according to the Senate majority leader's office.

Sometimes more than a foot high, omnibus spending bills are vehicles for all sorts of late-night, end-of-session mischief. They are usually passed very quickly in the rush to adjournment, without many lawmakers' actually knowing what's in the package. And because so many spending measures are included in omnibus bills, members find it difficult to vote against them-and such bills make it difficult to criticize members for having voted for any particular provision.

"You never know until it's passed who slipped what into it that's embarrassing to the institution," Stenholm said. And Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., a frequent critic of the appropriations process, noted that in any omnibus bill, "there will be many billions of dollars of pork-barrel projects."

Repairing the process is easier said than done. Most observers acknowledge it would take comprehensive budget process reform to solve the problem. But such efforts have languished on Capitol Hill for years, because any changes would ultimately diminish some lawmakers' power.

And so members of Congress are likely to continue to muddle through-passing CRs to keep the government open and then holding their noses while voting for huge spending packages. And members will continue to complain. "It's a terrible process," McCain said. And Stenholm asked, "How can anyone, with a straight face, claim this is good government?"

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