|Budget Crisis Looms - Again|
Will Congress finish the FY 2002 US budget by the Oct. 1, 2001 deadline, thus averting yet another "budget crisis" full of emergency spending resolutions and threats of government shutdowns? Probably not.
As of Aug. 2, the Senate had passed only four of the 13 discretionary appropriations bills estimated to account for over $660 billion in federal spending for 2002.
Even more ominous is the fact that none of the 13 spending bills have yet cleared the "conference" phase in which joint House-Senate committees settle differences between House- and Senate-passed versions of the bills. After they come from the conference committees, the compromise bills, now called "conference reports," must be debated and approved by both the House and Senate before they can be sent to President Bush for his signature -- or veto.
Should the conference reports on all 13 spending bills not have been approved by Oct. 1, Congress will have to pass emergency continuing resolutions, known as "CRs" in order to keep many government services and programs running. Each CR typically keeps the money flowing for about a week. Sometimes, the president will refuse to sign a CR in an attempt to force Congress to complete its work on the spending bills. Without an approved CR, many agencies of the federal government simply shutdown and send their employees home.
Since 1981, five budget-related government shutdowns lasting from a few hours to over six months have taken place. Most serious of these was the shutdown of 1995 when different functions of government are idled for varying lengths of time until April of 1996.
The Clinton Administration estimated the 1995 shutdown had cost taxpayers some $700 - $800 million including $400 million going to furloughed federal employees who were paid, but did not report to work. The Treasury Department reported another $400 million in lost revenue over the four days that the IRS enforcement divisions were closed. [More details on the 1995-1996 shutdown]
In a perfect budget world, the president presents a budget proposal to Congress in early February. By the August recess, both House and Senate have passed the 13 spending bills, leaving all of September to finish up conference reports and complete the budget process by Oct. 1. Since 1991, however, the budget has been completed on time exactly twice, in September of 1994 and September of 1996.
Though tentatively scheduled to adjourn on Oct. 5 this year, Congress will remain in session until the 2002 budget is completed. Both House and Senate leaders are now expecting the session to extend through the end of November.
Last year not only were they held until mid-December, lawmakers were forced to serve in an unusual and painful lame duck session held amidst the political fallout of the most tumultuous presidential election in U.S. history.
This year, finger pointing arising from a suddenly shrinking budget surplus and a general scramble to protect Social Security reserves promise to further slow the budget process.