October 8, 2003
Snail's Pace
By Stan Collender
A number of "Budget Battles" readers took the time this week to send e-mails with some very pointed remarks about Congress' and the president's failure to get all of the fiscal 2004 appropriations in place by the start of the year. Most were merely angry; a few were downright vitriolic.
It didn't help that one of the bills that did get signed into law was the appropriation funding Congress. The only thing that might have made it worse is if the Transportation/Treasury appropriation, which funds the White House, had also been enacted.
There really isn't much of an excuse for appropriations not to be enacted on time. While there is nothing that says that appropriations have to be enacted at all, spending money is the major way Congress and the administration get things done. You would expect, therefore, that they would make a more concerted effort to put these bills in place.
But even if there aren't any good excuses, there are a number of excellent reasons why this is exactly what happens year after year.
The most important is that tradition, politics and the budget process all force the House and Senate to wait before beginning to vote on the appropriations for the coming year. It does not have to do so, but Congress almost always lets the president submit his budget before starting any work on spending or taxing legislation. This forces the president to go first and take the political heat for the spending cuts or tax increases that might have to be considered.
The last time Congress seriously considered going first was in 1995, when the newly-elected Republican majority in both houses said that it wasn't going to wait for the Clinton budget because it—and he—were "irrelevant." Even in this situation, however, the Republican leadership ultimately decided to wait for the president's budget to be sent to Capitol Hill before doing anything on its own.
Spending decisions are also delayed because the congressional budget process requires the budget resolution to be agreed to before the full House and Senate may take any votes on appropriations. That effectively prevents either house from taking action until mid-March at the earliest, and sometimes until April, May or June.
That leaves about three to five months to get all of the work done. But that period includes recesses for Easter/Passover, Independence Day, August and Labor Day, so what seems like a long time really isn't.
But even the 12 weeks left are not as long as they seem. One or both houses often avoid legislative business each Monday or Friday, there are some mid-week holidays where no debates or votes are held, and legislation other than the spending bills is often a higher priority.
And in presidential election years, when primaries and nominating conventions wreak further havoc on the schedule, the days available for appropriations work are even harder to find.
But even if recesses were fewer and shorter, Monday and Friday sessions were required, the president's budget was sent to Congress by Jan. 15 instead of the first Monday in February, and the budget resolution deadline was moved up by a month, the chances of all 13 appropriations being enacted by the start of the fiscal year would still be rather slim. After all, none of those changes would address the most important reason it takes so long: The decisions are difficult and the votes are politically painful.
The amount of money politically acceptable to spend is almost always less than the amount that most Republicans and Democrats want to spend. With slim margins in both houses, the leadership must work harder to get the support it needs to pass the bills, and has to delay until a majority can be assured.
Besides, it is not clear that all members of Congress want to speed through the appropriations process anyway. Representatives and senators often get what they want in the spending bills by using their votes on other matters considered earlier in the year as leverage. For example, they might vote with the president on something important to the White House in exchange for the administration's support to fund for a project in her or his state or district. Or they might work with leadership in exchange for higher funding than might otherwise be approved for some program. This leverage would be eliminated, however, if the appropriations were enacted earlier in the year.
This means that, unless the level of funding increases so significantly that most members get what they want in appropriations without having to bargain for it, quick action on all of the appropriations for any fiscal year is not going to happen.
So the situation is not likely to improve much any time soon, and getting angry about it, as many "Budget Battles" readers did this past week, won't help much. Getting a massage, doing yoga or breaking out the foam rubber bats might be the better way to go.
Question Of The Week
Unfinished Business. It's time to reveal the winner for the contest from the week of Aug. 19, which asked readers to guess how many 2004 appropriations would be signed by the president by the time the fiscal year began. Although three bills—Defense, Legislative Branch, and Homeland Security—were sent to the White House before the fiscal year began, Homeland Security was not signed by the president until Oct. 1, so the correct answer is two. The winner of the "I Won A 2003 Budget Battle" mouse pad is T.J. Akerboom, who works with the U.S. Army NATO in Brunssum, The Netherlands.
Last Week's Question. There was simply no way to determine whose "Roses are red, Violets are blue" federal budget couplet was the best, so the winner was chosen completely at random from all of the entries received. Congratulations to Todd Shoaff, who works for the Bureau of Land Management in Washington, D.C., for these four lines, which were similar to what many people submitted:
Roses are red
Violets are blue
Half last year's budget
Twice more to do!
This Week's Question. The federal agencies and departments whose fiscal 2004 appropriation was not enacted by the start of the fiscal year are operating under a continuing resolution that expires at midnight on Oct. 31, 2003. The question: What happens to the continuing resolution funding provision for these agencies and departments if their regular appropriation is enacted before this date?
Click here to send in your response, which must be received by 5 p.m. PDT on Saturday, Oct. 11, 2003. Entries that do not include a mailing address (so we can send you the mouse pad if you win) will not be considered.
Note to government employees: Because of security procedures at many offices and facilities, your home address will be the best way to make sure the mouse pad actually gets to you.

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