NEARLY ONE-THIRD of the way into the fiscal year, Congress is limping its way toward passing the bills to cover this year's spending. The Senate last week belatedly approved a $390 billion spending package that wraps together the appropriations bills Congress failed to deal with last year. We have become resigned to government by continuing resolution -- a peculiarly Orwellian euphemism for procrastination. But the combination of the extreme tardiness of the measure, the large number of spending bills lumped together (11 of 13), and the relative paucity of debate makes this year's budget debacle particularly appalling. And that is leaving aside the substance of the spending measure, which manages to find funding for lawmakers' pet projects ($1 million for noxious weed management in Montana, $20 million for Alaskan seafood marketing) while skimping on homeland security and the needy. With the measure headed to a conference that is unlikely to conclude before mid-February, agencies are left wondering how much money they have to spend (or to cut). President Bush is about to submit his 2004 budget before this year's spending is finalized. The process is bad for the country and a discredit to the Senate, the House and the Bush administration.
The spending could have been agreed on last year, but for a fight over about $10 billion, a relative pittance in the context of a $2 trillion budget. Senate appropriators agreed to the disputed money when Democrats were in control last year, but the administration insisted that that Congress hew to an arbitrary spending cap. This year, with the GOP in charge, the Senate reluctantly toed the administration line (or appeared to, with accounting gimmickry worthy of Enron). The administration's lectures on fiscal discipline would have more credence if it were not simultaneously pushing another huge tax cut and minimizing the impact of the ballooning deficit. Mr. Bush is like a homeowner who has launched a lavish, granite-countertops-in-the-kitchen renovation but balks at writing the checks for basic maintenance.
There is ample blame to go around. The House dutifully passed a budget resolution (the provision that sets overall spending targets) that hewed to the president's capricious cap. Then it promptly abdicated its responsibility to make the hard individual choices that entails, leaving that nasty business up to the Senate. Now, with the election safely behind them, House members can hash it all out in the shelter of a conference and a simple up or down vote on the floor. The Senate took a dive of a different sort. Fearful of opening the door to more tax cuts, Senate Democrats failed to pass any budget resolution at all for the first time since 1975, giving President Bush the upper hand in insisting that his own spending limit was the magic number. When the Senate finally got down to business this month, lawmakers resorted to the cheap fix of across-the-board cuts (which likely will be undone in conference) and accounting tricks such as declaring some of the spending an emergency (and therefore not subject to limits) or borrowing from 2004 funds. As Pennsylvania Sen. Arlen Specter (R) said during the debate, it's enough to give sausage a bad name.