Politics and Practices: Appropriations season is a continuing saga

Jason Miller

Congress has entered the silly season'when lawmakers try to make order out of the chaos that is the federal appropriations process. But it's the agency feds who should be laughing'nervously.

Federal executives should wonder which Congress will show up: the efficient one that bypasses the partisanship and pork that usually gums up the legislative process; or the slow and stammering one that limits federal managers to spending money on only what is absolutely necessary to keep their agencies going.

The evidence, unfortunately, indicates that the slow and stammering Congress will appear.

By the August recess, no appropriations bills had made it to conference committee, let alone the president's desk. And many experts believe agencies will again be working under a continuing resolution for at least the first three months of fiscal 2004.

The Defense, Homeland Security, Legislative and Military Construction appropriations bills are closest to being finished. They will go to conference committee when Congress returns from recess.

The Senate still must vote four bills out of committee, while five other measures are ready to be considered by the full body.

The House, meanwhile, has passed 11 of 13 bills and is waiting for the Senate to act.

Even though many agencies should be used to working under a continuing resolution, the inability of Congress and the president to come to terms on appropriate spending levels will continue to hamper government projects, especially IT initiatives.

But there is hope that this year will be better than last.

In 2003, Congress passed 12 continuing resolutions before passing an omnibus spending bill in February'almost five months into the fiscal year.

One agency CIO said such a budget situation leaves projects at a standstill. Continuing resolutions hampered the 25 e-government projects because agencies were committed to funding them but couldn't deliver the money until Congress appropriated it.

And vendors have said agencies released more requests for proposals in the last few months this year than in previous years because departments received their funding so late.

Many observers say this year has to be better than last because Republicans control the Senate, House and White House.

Another positive sign is that Congress agreed to a cap of $785 billion for agency spending. This means both houses are allocating funding from the same starting point, which will make compromises easier, congressional staff members said.

On the other hand, some observers said, agencies could be in for a long haul again because the administration prefers to work under continuing resolutions, which hold down civilian agency spending. Last year, for instance, civilian agencies received fewer funds because they had only seven months instead of 10 or 11 months to spend it, experts said.

Some also believe that senators will want to raise the spending cap because there isn't enough money for all of their pet projects, which will delay the budget.

Both House and Senate staff members expressed optimism for getting all the appropriations bills finished before November.

Lawmakers can afford to be confident at this time of year, but agencies should plan for funding chaos at least for the first three months of 2004. And then hope for a little order.

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