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Confusion rules over federal budgeting process

Analysis

WASHINGTON - The virtue of conventional continuing resolutions on the federal budget is their elegant simplicity: federal programs all know what they get in the way of set funding, namely the lowest funding level from the House of Representatives-approved proposed budget, the Senate-approved proposed budget or the budget enacted by Congress in the most recent fiscal year (at present, FY 2006). Neither lobbyists, special interests, the reactions of rank-and-file congressional members nor, for the most part, the White House can change the amounts.

But the years '06 and '07 are going to be unconventional ones in the chronicle of government budgeting. Not to mince words about it, the federal budget process has tanked. In response, Congress has quite possibly saddled itself and the nation with the worst of two approaches: flat funding of all federal programs at FY '06 levels until Feb. 15, followed by more of the same until October (when FY '08 commences) except for those programs to which special adjustments are made. The special adjustments are likely to make for the most detailed continuing resolution on the federal budget for next year since Congress, incapable of resolving its differences over federal spending, began to rely on them in 1994.

The specter of special adjustments, of course, opens the door all over again to high-stakes lobbying from every direction, though next year's Democratic leadership team on the budget has stated in strong terms that they contemplate only ''limited adjustments.'' It appears that health care, education and Veterans Administration programs will get a preference. Other programs, undetermined at this writing, may receive additional funding as necessary to maintain operations.

On top of all that, the focus on '06 funding levels, in effect, places a moratorium on ''earmarks,'' at least until Congress can pass legislation that reforms lobbying practices.

Earmarks are the special spending provisions that congressional members can insert, anonymously and without debate, into appropriations bills; in almost all cases, they favor projects in a lawmaker's home state or constituency. They are fully constitutional, in that the Constitution gives Congress the power of the purse. And they are popular with lawmakers and the general public for obvious reasons. But they have ballooned beyond the limits of ethical restraint, from a few hundred in the 1970s to half a thousand in the 1980s, thousands by the '90s and more than 15,000 now.

The argument is made that by and large, the earmarks system worked well enough, assuming American taxpayers were prepared to foot the draw on the federal treasury. But three occurrences have fed a determination in the new Congress to reform. The Nov. 7 elections suggest voters have had enough of a Congress that can't police itself; the Jack Abramoff lobbying debacle highlighted the corruption inherent in a system that wreathes congressional members in fig leaves as their constituents feed at troughs of gold; and the infamous ''Bridge to Nowhere'' proposed to duplicate the work of a 10-minute ferry service ride by connecting the fewer than 50 inhabitants of Gravina Island off southeast Alaska to Ketchikan, but at a cost of $223 million in federal pork-barrel funding - only one of 6,371 earmarks in the Transportation Equity Act, according to online news site Salon.

The earmarks moratorium is bound to cancel and despoil planned projects throughout the country, including many that touch Native people in Indian country, Alaska and Hawaii. It would be the instinct of any reporter to forewarn of the impending damage before it can be done; but that won't be possible for a while yet. Faced with constituent hostility and fury within its own chambers, Congress is now in a stalemate over the definition of an earmark. Is an earmark an appropriation no one will go down in ''the well'' (the area on the House floor, between the rostrum and member seats, where House members hold forth from podiums) to defend? Are such earmarks really in the same category as appropriations that have to be defended in the first place only because someone keeps coming up with an indefensible reason for zeroing out its budget, year after year, as for instance in the case of United Tribes Technical College?

As these words are written, Congress ponders the very definition of an earmark, with no very clear idea of what it may be. On the other hand, it seems clear enough that any savings to the budget from the trimming of earmarks will be plowed, in large part, right back into the overall budget, where it will likely rescue education and Veterans Affairs programs undermined by the decision to fund most federal programs at '06 levels until Oct. 1.

For the record, the budget morass facing the Democrat-majority Congress in '07 is a direct result of decisions by the Republican-majority Congress of '06 not to be bothered with budgetary debate on nine of 11 domestic spending bills. Only defense and homeland security bills were finalized. Most domestic spending bills, including many that affect Indian country, will be funded at '06 levels if the announced plan holds up.

But given the current distress in Congress over the definition of an earmark, even budget experts are wary of stating the probable losses. The National American Indian Housing Council, for one, has stated that it will have to curtail programs if it is limited to its '06 budget. One of a few certainties at present is that it won't be alone.

Budget forecast clears to partly cloudy

The outlook for the national budget is never altogether clear, as federal bureaucrats and program personnel discover every year. But it has seldom been as cloudy as now, and the few gleams emanating from Capitol Hill have brought more clarity than comfort.

For it's increasingly likely that the new Democratic majority in Congress means it - domestic spending will not rise with its ascendancy. Education, veterans and children's health, and homeland security programs are apt to realize priority increases in funding. But otherwise, Democratic leadership on the major budget committees in Congress has gotten behind an agenda that calls for reducing the (official) $248 billion budget deficit without curtailing war costs projected at $170 billion for the 2007 fiscal year (if there is a fiscal year 2007). And Republicans have already signaled that they will disparage as ''tax-and-spend'' policy any Democratic initiative to increase income tax revenues to the federal treasury.

So with only 20 percent of the federal budget available for discretionary spending on domestic programs, some of them Indian-specific programs, the arithmetic is pretty much ineluctable. If the Democrats stick with it, all but a few domestic programs appear destined for a flat-lined budget at 2006 levels.

Earmarks are the wild card. Democrats surprised much of Washington with their insistence that earmarks, the project funding congressional members smuggle into the budget for the benefit of their constituents, will be frozen until the laws on lobbying can be reformed. It's still unclear whether Congress will agree on the definition of earmarks, much less on whether the earmarking system needs an overhaul.

Constituents may force their hand. As Capitol Hill gathers momentum for action on earmarks, media have offered more and more accounts of ordinary citizens and state officials who disapprove of earmarks, defying all conventional wisdom.

If the moratorium on earmarks holds, Congress can be expected to spend out the savings again; but as of now, Congress itself can't begin to tell anyone how.