Lawmakers Tackle Annual Appropriations Problems

Although the new fiscal year began on Wednesday, Congress failed to meet its deadline for passing the fiscal year 2004 budget, once again freezing operations at 2003 levels while it sorts out the government's funding for the coming year.

Of the 13 appropriations bills, just three have been signed into law -- Defense, Homeland Security and Legislative Branch. Of the 10 remaining spending bills, the House has passed all of them. The Senate has yet to approve six. Both chambers have not yet tackled the $87 billion supplemental bill for Iraq and Afghanistan for next year.

In order to keep the government from shutting down, Congress passed a continuing resolution at the end of last month that allows agencies to continue operating under 2003 funding levels until Oct. 31, the new deadline lawmakers have set for themselves to finish up the remaining bills.

Last year -- like most years -- Congress also proved unable to get the appropriations bills done on time and passed repeated continuing resolutions until an omnibus appropriations package was approved in January of this year.

While Republicans blamed majority Democrats last year for Senate delays that prevented the budget from being passed in time for the new fiscal year, Democrats are now taking their shots, saying the Republican-run Senate is in a state of confusion.

When Congress was controlled by the Democrats, appropriations bills were completed “in a much more efficient and timely manner,” Democratic Party spokeswoman Deborah DeShong said.

“The fact that they have been unable to get it done is the failure of the Republican leadership. “The Republican leadership is more focused on advancing a political agenda than getting them through," DeShong said. 

But Republicans say they aren't as behind the curve as when Democrats were in charge. House Appropriations Committee (search) spokesman John Scofield said while 10 bills still need to be completed, the House has finished its part. He added that the three bills that have been signed into law make up a large percentage of the government's discretionary spending.

“We’re in a much better position than last year,” Scofield said. “I think it’s more important that it’s done right rather than it’s done on time.”

Depending on how long and tedious the appropriations process gets -- and lawmakers are known to adjourn the legislative year as soon as the spending packages are approved -- Congress can now seek to pass the remaining bills individually or put together an omnibus package to fund all of the programs that have not yet been financed for next year.

Both those options concern anti-tax and anti-waste activists, who say that because the bills must be passed, the expedient, legislative maneuvering provides an attractive target for lawmakers to attach extraneous funding projects.

For instance, the continuing resolution, which passed the House 407-8 and cleared the Senate by a voice vote, includes provisions to maintain aid to the Federated States of Micronesia and the Republic of the Marshall Islands and funding for a $550 million loan to the Czech Republic for it to purchase 14 used F-16 airplanes and other military support.

Pete Sepp, vice president of the National Taxpayers Union (search), said that while continuing resolutions provide lawmakers a vehicle to attach pet projects, they are much less dangerous than an omnibus package because continuing resolutions are more focused, deal with smaller dollar amounts and allow for more consideration.

“It’s just a little more difficult to hide pork barrel legislation” in a continuing resolution, Sepp said. “Once you get into omnibus territory, it’s usually as urgent and rushed as the final two minutes of a football game.”

Lawmakers will “make any compromise, approve anyone’s pet project just to get the bill to the president’s desk, and that can be very fiscally dangerous,” he added.

Thomas A. Schatz, president of Citizens Against Government Waste (search), cited the 1998 omnibus package -- which he said was 3,825 pages long and weighed 40 pounds -- as an example of how the spending process gets blown up.

“Clearly nobody reads that,” Schatz said of the bill. “If they have a large omnibus and don’t pass the bills individually that usually allows the opportunity for more pork."

Schatz said that the appropriations battle this year has been tough because besides the usual partisan rancor, some conservative Republicans are balking at large spending bills that will add to the deficit.

“With the Republicans in charge, they should have been able to do it, and they said they were going to do it. It’s their job and they didn’t do it,” Schatz said, adding that the GOP has no excuse for the delays.

But with seven of the appropriations bills already through both the House and Senate chambers, Scofield said a huge omnibus package is now unlikely. The chambers still have to go through a conference committee to reconcile differences in each version of the seven spending bills, but that is not a large legislative hurdle.

In the “worst case scenario,” there will be a six-bill omnibus, Scofield said. 

Scofield also said that while lawmakers prefer to get the bills completed through normal channels, an omnibus bill is not as bad as certain groups make it seem.

“You look at the package last year: Nobody liked it, but it would be hard to argue that anything insidious happened. We didn’t do any harm to the public good," he said.

The Senate has yet to pass six appropriations bills -- Agriculture; Commerce, Justice, State; District of Columbia; Transportation/Treasury and Veterans/Housing and Urban Development. Once the Senate passes them, they too will go to a conference committee before being sent back for a final vote in each chamber and sent to the White House for the president’s signature.