WASHINGTON – Political maneuvering in the House and Senate has forced the budget process to a near standstill, with lawmakers afraid to make tough spending decisions before the November election. But observers say the taxpayer is the only real party that stands to lose in this war of wills.
"How they resolve this in the end is the real worry," charged Pete Sepp, spokesman for the National Taxpayers' Union.
Congress passed a continuing budget resolution to extend the 2002 budget beyond the end of the fiscal year, which ended Tuesday. The new deadline for passing the 11 spending bills that have yet to be approved by Congress is Oct. 4 -- a timetable players in both chambers say they will not be able to accommodate.
That means the Congress will have to pass another continuing resolution extending to Oct. 11 and then beyond, because there are no illusions that they will be able to finish their work by then.
The question of the day seems to be whether Congress will extend the budget until after the November election and into December, which would be considered a "lame duck" Congress, or extend it until March when a new Congress is in session.
Either way, experts concede that going into an election with 11 out of 13 spending bills hanging in the balance is unusual. Continuing resolutions merely fund the bills, which include spending for the Departments of Labor/Health and Human Services, Interior, Commerce, Agriculture, Transportation, Treasury, Veterans Administration and House and Urban Development as well as the foreign operations, legislative budgets, District of Columbia and Energy budgets, at 2002 spending levels.
The defense and military construction bills are the only two that have been passed by both the House and Senate so far. Military construction was approved by Congress over the summer, and officials say the defense package will be the only other passed before the election, possibly next week.
The reasons for the delay on the rest of the budget depend on who is doing the explaining. In the House, the problems are blamed on the Senate, which did not pass a budget, and is therefore working off a top-line spending limit that exceeds that of the House and President Bush's requests by at least $15 billion.
"The root of all of these budget problems is that the Senate never passed a budget," complained John Scofield, GOP spokesman for the House Appropriations Committee. He says that without a budget, senators do not have to committ to specific spending guidelines.
Therefore, House lawmakers say if the Senate is going to trump them anyway and return home like Santa Claus with tons of spending increases for their respective constituents, then they don't want to be in the position of Scrooge, making the tough decisions to keep spending to the $759 billion limit imposed by the president.
This has led to conservatives and moderates in the House clashing over the very idea of keeping spending down, particularly on the Labor/HHS bill, which includes education and health care. Earlier in the summer, conservatives struck a deal with the leadership to take up that bill before the rest, and staffers say that infighting will keep that measure from coming to a floor vote before the election.
Rep. Martin Frost, D-Texas, complained last week that while House Republicans like to blame the Senate for slacking on the spending bills, it's the infighting that has kept votes at bay, and because the Senate cannot act until the House does, the bottleneck is all their doing.
"The truth is, Republican leaders have internal political problems and can't do the most basic work of the Congress -- passing the appropriations bills that fund the federal government," Frost charged.
"The majority in the Republican Conference wants to gut resources for education and other priorities in the bill funding the Departments of Labor, Education and Health and Human Services," he added. "But a few so-called moderate Republicans are afraid to take that vote on the eve of the election."
But observers say that many lawmakers appear willing to stall on the spending measures in the Senate, too, because the balance of power between the Democrats and Republicans could be reversed in the election, putting Republicans in charge.
"Political calculations are being made based upon who will control the Senate," Scofield said.
A Democratic aide on the Senate side, who did not want to be named, disagreed that the Senate should be blamed for the troubles because it did not pass a budget. The aide did acknowledge, however, that the one-vote balance between the parties has a lot to do with the lackluster attempts at passing the remaining spending bills.
"We're not moving because we're arguing over partisan issues," the aide said. "So, some want to come back in December and vote in a lame duck session, and others would rather come back in the spring. Those considerations seem to be more important than passing a budget."
Sepp said that although continuing resolutions to hold spending to 2002 levels -- meaning no new pork projects and increases -- might look good to fiscal conservatives, the risk is that Congress might be forced to hurriedly pass an omnibus bill that rolls all 11 bills into one next year. This will effectively throw fiscal caution and scrutiny out the window, he said.
"The problem is the end-game -- an omnibus spending bill is almost always a bad deal for taxpayers," he said. "We end up getting a massive spending package at the end, and not only do members of Congress not know what they are voting for, nor does anyone else."
Elizabeth Wenk, spokeswoman for Rep. Michael Castle, R-Del., warned that a continuing resolution that took the budgets into the next year would not include increases for homeland security, as well as other measures beefing up education and social programs from 2002 levels.
"We need more money," said Wenk, discussing the current battles between the moderates and conservative Republicans in the House. Her boss is the president of the Main Street Partnership, a group of moderate Republicans.
Scofield said his boss, House Appropriations Chairman Bill Young, R-Fla., doesn't want the continuing resolutions to extend into the new Congress, citing worst-case scenarios in which Congress will be forced to pass a 2003 budget while simultaneously crafting the 2004 spending plan.
"It's bad public policy and a poor way to govern in our view," he said, noting that there will be inevitably wartime spending issues to tackle and a host of new members who will have to be brought up to speed.
"It's a tricky budget season; it's an extraordinary year as well," said Wenk.