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Great Lakes Article:

Budgeting for Delays, a Week Into Fiscal Year
Dan Morgan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Posted 10/08/2002

Procrastination has long been a fine art in Congress, but one has to go back a ways to find a parallel to the paralysis now afflicting the annual process by which Congress funds the federal government from one October to the next.

Although the new fiscal year is a week old today, Congress has not enacted a single one of the 13 annual bills that pay for the operations of government. Departments, agencies and programs are functioning under a "continuing resolution," or "CR," enabling them to keep paying bills and salaries at the old fiscal year's rate.

Congress is expected to pass defense and military construction bills this week. But it will probably leave the other 11 bills for a lame-duck session after the election, or even kick them over to the new 108th Congress next year. That means it could be months until the space program, the FBI, the Treasury Department and the Army Corps of Engineers (among many others) know what their final budgets will be.

Such a situation isn't unprecedented. CRs have been used almost since the birth of the republic to give Congress and the president more time to iron out disagreements and make the deals needed to win the signature of the commander in chief and a majority of votes in the House and the Senate.

"When we don't have a consensus in society about what we want to spend our money on, that manifests itself in deadlock on the Hill," said James A. Thurber, who directs the Center for Congressional and Presidential Studies at American University.

After drawn-out battles over spending on guns vs. butter in the Vietnam era, Congress in 1974 passed landmark budget legislation that was supposed to create a more orderly system. It required Congress to pass an annual budget that the Appropriations Committee had to live with.

But the system continued to be untidy. In 1980, disputes over abortion issues and other matters caused Congress to put off action on five of the 13 spending bills (covering seven major departments and the foreign aid program) until the next Congress. It wasn't until June 1981 that President Ronald Reagan signed the last of the appropriations bills.

As politically divided government became the norm, the battles over spending priorities intensified. Since 1980, there have been six years besides this one when Congress did not complete a single spending bill by the start of the fiscal year. Lawmakers have passed 102 CRs over that period to keep the government running pending approval of new spending authority. Only in 1977, 1989 and 1997 was the work wrapped up when the new fiscal year began Oct. 1.

During the 1995-96 budget collision between President Bill Clinton and the newly installed Republican Congress, the two sides couldn't agree on the terms of a CR. The result was that the government was twice shut down except for essential services, once for 21 days.

But the situation this year seems worse in some respects, say some lawmakers and staffers.

"The three main players, the White House, Senate and House, have painted themselves into different corners," said a former staffer on the House Appropriations Committee. "Where's the wiggle room?"

While a bipartisan group of senators supports spending up to $768 billion in the 13 bills, the White House has insisted on $9 billion less. Senior Republicans on the House Appropriations Committee privately would like to side with the Senate. But House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.), in a bow to fiscal conservatives, supports the president.

Even during past years of major conflict, Congress kept whittling away at the pile of work as negotiations went on over the most controversial items. In 2000, there were 21 CRs and the last of the bills wasn't signed into law until four days before Christmas. Adjournment was held up by disputes ranging from a proposed boost in education funding to curbs on Alaskan pollock fishermen sought by environmentalists.

But House, Senate and White House negotiators reached agreement on eight less controversial spending bills, and they became law.

That doesn't seem to be in the cards this year. The House has passed only five bills and the Senate three.

A new Congress would have to pass those bills all over again, requiring a whole new round of backroom dealmaking on everything from highway projects in congressional districts to the extent of federal support for veterans' health care.

"Those bills are chock full of earmarks and deals. That will be work down the drain" if this Congress hands the work off to its successor, Thurber said. There could be other complications, he added.

"If we go to war, it will be even more difficult," he said.

© 2002 The Washington Post Company

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