for Delays, a Week Into Fiscal Year Dan Morgan
Washington Post Staff Writer
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
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
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
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
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
"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
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