A Dismal Outlook for Domestic Spending

Congress officially adjourned last Friday, after passing its seventh Continuing Resolution (CR) of the year. This CR, H.J. 124, was necessary to provide the funding to keep government running because Congress was unable to pass 11 of the 13 appropriations bills for FY 2003, which began on October 1, 2002. This CR funds departments and programs at their FY 2002 levels through January 11. It appears there will be an effort to pass the FY 2003 appropriations before the President’s State of the Union address, so at least one more CR will be necessary.

It is important to keep in mind that this continuing resolution for the eleven appropriations bills that have not yet been passed is a CUT in appropriations, since funding at last year’s levels does not take into account population growth, increased need, or programs or services that were authorized by Congress but are dependent on new appropriations decisions. This will affect almost every aspect of government, including anti-terrorism programs. For example, the $3.5 billion in grants to local “first responders,” including firefighters, police departments and emergency services will not be funded until the resources are officially appropriated. Besides facing cuts in funding, agencies cannot properly plan their activities for the coming year since they don’t know how much money will be appropriated. They will be apt to err on the side of caution, cutting spending as much as possible over the next few months until appropriations are passed. For instance, according to a recent New York Times article, the National Nuclear Security Administration has imposed a hiring freeze because of budgetary restraints, in spite of current reports that nuclear facilities are potential terrorist targets.

It could be worse. Many observers were concerned for some time that Congress might eventually give up entirely on the FY 2003 budget process and pass a long-term CR that would keep the government running until October 1, 2003, when FY 2004 officially begins. It now appears that Congress will, instead, write one or more omnibus bills that will lump the remaining appropriations together. While omnibus bills offer the potential for a great deal of secrecy and obfuscation of the budget process, they usually offer an important advantage over a long-term CR in that the latter would not allow for increased funding for federal programs. An omnibus bill, by comparison, offers at least the possibility that appropriators and other Members of Congress will fight for the increased funding necessary for programs to be able to at least keep up with inflation.

However, passage of the FY 2003 appropriations bills, whether by one or more omnibus bills or one by one, is not likely to result in increased funding. Earlier this year, Republican members of the Senate Appropriations Committee joined Democrats in a unanimous vote to provide $395 billion for non-defense federal departments and agencies ($10 billion over the President’s bottom line of $385 billion). The election results seem to have nixed that deal. It now appears that Senate Republican leaders have agreed to the $10 billion cut in this year’s domestic spending bills. This would result in cuts in funding for education, including the Pell grant program, veterans’ medical care, community law enforcement, low-income programs, and many other services that are important to most Americans.

While the argument is being made that domestic (nonmilitary) spending last year was $373 billion, excluding emergency funding connected with the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, and funding for FY 2002 is $12 billion more, most of the increase in spending goes to homeland defense, narrowly defined. Real homeland security, however, requires adequate funding to insure the domestic security of all Americans, including the opportunities for a good education, food on the table, housing, health care, safe and healthy communities—a range of domestic priorities without which we cannot be a strong and secure country.

Looking beyond the coming appropriations process for FY 2003 and 2004, the social conservative movement that is being promised will almost certainly bring more cuts. Conservatives want to shrink government. Reducing revenue by cutting taxes for the wealthy, and then calling for cuts in domestic spending in the name of “fiscal responsibility” is an effective way to accomplish that goal. Equally of concern are the efforts by conservatives to channel funding for government supported programs to particular groups, like religious organizations, or for particular purposes, like promoting marriage, which will further reduce funding for other government funded efforts and goals.

The budget reflects our values. While it won’t be easy, it is vital to champion the values of fairness, equal opportunity, and concern for those who are most insecure and at risk in the forthcoming budget battles.

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