IT MAY SEEM hard to believe that in an era of budget surpluses the federal judiciary might have to cut and furlough staff and slash funding for the defense of indigents and court security. Yet with Congress continuing to pretend to abide by its budget caps (except, of course, when it doesn't suit it to do so and it resorts to "emergency" spending or some other form of fanciful accounting), that could actually happen. Recently, Chief Justice William Rehnquist wrote a letter to congressional leaders noting that both the Senate and House had shortchanged the judiciary in the appropriations process, even as federal caseloads continue to rise. The Senate has offered $280 million less than the courts requested, while the House bill would provide $180 million less. While the Senate version is far worse, the chief justice noted, even the House version "would have a noticeable adverse impact on court operations."

The judiciary is not a very expensive part of the federal government. The courts have requested $4.1 billion for fiscal year 2000, a $300 million increase over this year's spending that will permit the maintenance of current services but not any additional hiring or new programs. At less than a fifth of one percent of the overall budget, the third branch of government is quite cheap.

Skimping on the judiciary, in fact, is very hard to understand. Caseloads are not, after all, related to the preparedness of the courts to handle them, so budgetary tight-fistedness serves only to slow down case processing. Ironically, congressional appropriators have criticized the D.C. courts for cutting off payments to court-appointed lawyers in response to budget crises. If the Senate has its way now, the federal courts may have to do something similar next summer.

At some point, the budget caps are going to have to be breached. The simple fact is that the cost of ordinary government is greater than the arbitrary ceilings on which Congress is insisting to finance its tax cut. When Congress decides to face up to that fact, appropriators should, at a minimum, fund the judiciary at a level that permits it to maintain current operations.