Tuesday, December 09, 2003

Politics: Budget Derailment

This news brief in the Metro section of today's Washington Times caught my eye:
Prosecutors in the Washington Teachers' Union case said they are mired in evidence and have asked attorneys for the four defendants to waive their rights to a "speedy trial."

The problem is the government has 50 boxes of documents that could be introduced at trial, but federal prosecutors say they cannot pay to have much of the evidence photocopied because Congress has not approved the Justice Department's fiscal 2004 budget.
The federal government's 2004 fiscal year began on October 1, more than two months ago. So why doesn't the DOJ have its budget yet? In the federal budget process, Congress divides the government's appropriations into thirteen separate bills (each overseen by a separate subcommittee of each chamber's appropriations committee.) Thus far, Congress has only passed six: Defense, Energy & Water, Homeland Security, Interior, legislative branch, and military construction. Every other agency has been operating under a series of "continuing resolutions," which temporarily continue funding at levels from the previous fiscal year. There have already been six continuing resolutions; the most recent will keep everything open until January 31, 2004, nearly one-third of the way into the fiscal year.

Because of this backlog, the seven remaining appropriations bills have been smacked together into one giant "omnibus" appropriations bill. This one piece of legislation will spend about $375 billion on various programs. The House passed the omnibus yesterday 242-176. The Senate won't vote until January, however, because Democrats want more time to study and debate the measure.

I won't criticize the Democrats for this delay. Omnibus bills are notorious for including all sorts of riders and special projects designed to win votes. Frankly, we're better off under a continuing resolution, since that keeps spending levels lower than what the omnibus bill provides. Still, it's disturbing to think the DOJ can't fund a criminal prosecution—a basic function of government—because Congress can't pass a budget on time.

The outrageous thing is that with Congress and the White House in Republican hands, the budget process still broke down. The blame for this, in my view, rests squarely with the majority leaders in both chambers: Tom DeLay in the House and Bill Frist in the Senate. Both are first-year majority leaders, which may explain part of the problem. The first job of the leaders is running the schedule. Both men spent most of the year focused on placating the White House's demand for a prescription drug benefit and a pork-laden energy bill. The result was this end-of-the-year breakdown on appropriations. Frist in particular has done a lousy job, given his inability to move the President's judicial nominations through the Senate.

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