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Congress’ fiscal inaction may have big costs

The Republican-controlled Congress's decision to adjourn a week ago before completing many of the spending bills that finance the federal government will reverberate in ways large and small. [!]
/ Source: a href="" linktype="External" resizable="true" status="true" scrollbars="true">The Washington Post</a

The Republican-controlled Congress's decision to adjourn a week ago before completing many of the spending bills that finance the federal government will reverberate in ways large and small, such as understaffed U.S. attorney's offices, delayed renovations at the University of Bridgeport in Connecticut and a scuttled global nuclear energy exchange.

Republican leaders left behind just enough spending authority to keep the government operating through mid-February, less than halfway through the 2007 fiscal year that began Oct. 1. Democrats have signaled that when they take control of Congress in January they will extend that funding authority for the remainder of the year based largely on the previous year's spending levels, which will result in many cuts in programs.

Earmarks on the chopping block
The Democrats also will do something that is certain to anger many lawmakers but cheer critics of excessive government spending: They will wipe out thousands of lawmakers' pet projects, or earmarks, that have been a source of great controversy on Capitol Hill. In the past, lawmakers have peppered individual spending bills with earmarks benefiting special interests. But the funding resolution the Democrats intend to pass in lieu of spending bills will be devoid of earmarks.

Among the casualties will be $3 million for AIDS and homelessness programs in San Francisco pushed by House Speaker-elect Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and $3 million to establish the Charles B. Rangel Center for Public Service at City College of New York, pushed by the center's namesake, the Democrats' incoming House Ways and Means Committee chairman.

Efforts championed by President Bush, such as "clean coal" technology, will take a big hit, but so will programs favored by Democrats. The federal judiciary would run out of money to pay lawyers for poor defendants by July, effectively locking up the wheels of justice because trials could not proceed without legal representation for defendants.

‘We did not call the shots’
Democrats say they had little choice but to take this tightfisted approach after Republicans dumped so many unfinished spending bills in their lap. "We did not call the shots here," maintained incoming House Appropriations Committee Chairman David R. Obey (D-Wis.), who said that with the fiscal year well underway and Democrats assuming power with a full slate of priorities, he will have little choice but to put the government on autopilot. "We will try to provide modest adjustments where we can, but a lot of people will be left short."

But some Republicans suspect that's not the full story.

"What the Democrats didn't say is that they probably intend to take the earmark savings and spend it elsewhere," said Rep. Dave Weldon (R-Fla.), who was hoping to get $3 million for a new autism research center at the Florida Institute of Technology.

The collapse of the budget process was a long time coming, with roots stretching back to the Republican revolution of 1994. But this year, the system finally buckled under the weight of the president's austere spending recommendations, a difficult election year and the Republican leadership's efforts to placate both its most ardent conservatives and its endangered moderates.

Inaction may cause more D.C. gridlock
Congress was able to pass only two of its 11 annual spending bills, those that fund defense and homeland security. Republicans punted spending measures for virtually every one of the government's domestic programs to the Democrats who assume control Jan. 4. Then last week, Democrats announced they would punt, too. A joint House-Senate resolution -- rather than carefully tailored spending bills -- will keep the government open through the end of the fiscal year, Sept. 30, largely at last year's levels.

The consequences will be substantial. At the Justice Department, officials said a resolution financing the government largely at 2006 levels would only worsen a severe staffing shortage at offices of U.S. attorneys around the country. The vacancy rate for federal prosecutors stands at about 10 percent on average, and House Democrats reported earlier this year that some larger offices have rates surpassing 20 percent.

The federal court system would not be spared, either. Operating at current funding levels would leave the judiciary with a $270 million shortfall for salaries and expenses, said Dick Carelli, spokesman for the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts. Furloughs, layoffs or attrition would be needed to trim the payroll by 7 percent -- or almost 3,000 probation officers, court clerk workers and pretrial service staff members -- by the close of the fiscal year, Carelli said.

Layoffs on the horizon
The Department of Energy is looking at a 20 percent cut in its administrative budget and could be forced to lay off many of the 960 people who help manage the department -- secretarial aides, lawyers and human resources staffers, said Craig Stevens, a department spokesman.

New presidential initiatives for 2007, such as the Global Nuclear Energy Partnership, FutureGen, a clean coal initiative, and a health-care information technology program, are not likely to be funded, agency officials say.

Democrats will make some adjustments in the joint resolution to address the most pressing needs, especially in the Department of Veterans Affairs health-care system, which needs $3 billion more just to keep covering all the veterans it covers now, and the Federal Bureau of Investigation, which could lose 500 agents under current funding levels, said Tom Gavin, spokesman for incoming Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Robert C. Byrd (D-W.Va.).

What is certain is that thousands of earmarks will get nothing, at least until October, when fiscal 2008 begins. About $400,000 in hospital equipment for Perris, Calif., $1.5 million in biotechnology grants for the Illinois Institute of Technology, and another $1.5 million for bridge and street repairs in Columbus, Ohio, will be wiped out.

Lawmakers fight to keep pet projects
Budget hawks who have been crusading against such home-district projects hailed the Democrats' decision as an unexpected stroke of political bravery. Bush praised the move yesterday in his weekly radio address.

But the lawmakers who worked to get those projects into the now-dashed spending bills were left quietly fuming. Obey said Friday that he has fielded "a steady stream of calls from people in high dudgeon."

"I will work to reverse this decision," promised Rep. Christopher Shays (R-Conn.), who lost a transit center for Bridgeport, a waste-to-energy program for Stamford and a train station for South Norwalk.

It has been nearly 20 years since congressional failures left the government to be financed under spending guidelines and formulas rather than line-by-line policymaking. But to federal budget experts, this year's breakdown was hardly surprising. Not since 1994, the last year of Democratic control, has Congress actually passed all of its spending bills. Republican leaders almost ensured logjams by populating the House Budget Committee with conservative spending hawks whose views on the size of government were fundamentally different from many of the appropriators who would have to flesh out the committee's budget blueprints. Ultimately, compromises in those conservative principles have been laid at the feet of the Clinton White House, the demands of the post-Sept. 11 government, or a Democratic-controlled Senate, said Scott Lilly, a former Democratic staff director of the House Appropriations Committee.

All an effort to reduce deficit?
But this year, conservatives dug in, backed by the White House and GOP leaders. Bush's domestic spending request for the fiscal year that began Oct. 1 actually sliced $2.2 billion from the 2006 level.

Rather than face a public fight over the cuts necessary to meet that goal, House Republican leaders decided not to bring the largest domestic spending bill, funding labor, health and education programs, to a vote before the election. The Senate did even less. Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) simply decided none of the domestic spending bills would get time on the Senate floor before the election.

"The breakdown of regular order this cycle -- indeed the failure to get our bills done -- should be squarely placed at the feet of the departing Senate majority leader," said outgoing House Appropriations Committee Chairman Jerry Lewis (R-Calif.).

Staff writers Christopher Lee, Dan Eggen, Steve Mufson and Amy Goldstein contributed to this report.