The new budget process was supposed to defuse the threat of automatic spending cuts by taking economic fluctuations into account. But it did not take into account bleary-eyed congressional staffers.
As a result of a clerical error committed in the final hours of the 10-month budget battle, the reprieve from automatic spending cuts that was supposed to last for the next three years will last barely three days -- at least for the State Department and other parts of the government's international affairs apparatus.
A goof in drafting the $15.4 billion bill that funds the State Department and foreign aid operations will push their projected spending over the newly imposed limits and thus force the government to make across-the-board cuts in all international spending accounts in order to save $395 million.
Officials are expected to do some budgetary juggling to absorb the cuts until the 102nd Congress can correct the error after it convenes on Jan. 3. Although the 1.9 percent cut will have little impact, and furloughs are not expected, the effort to stem red ink is creating red faces.
"We made a flat-out mistake," said a congressional official. "There are no ifs, ands or buts about it... . If Congress were still in session, we'd march out on the floor and fix it and nobody would know about it."
Tired congressional aides made the error as they worked 48 hours straight to ready the measure for House and Senate consideration as lawmakers rushed to adjourn. The House voted 188 to 162 to pass the legislation shortly before 9 p.m. Saturday, about five hours before Congress quit for the year. Earlier -- even before the House had acted -- the Senate agreed that the bill would be considered passed and sent to the president when it arrived from the House.
President Bush signed the legislation in Houston last night.
Although the congressional enrolling clerk is routinely given the authority to correct "technical errors," the power does not extend to this slip-up. "What we presented to the House and Senate was incorrect," an official said. "This isn't a typo."
Congressional officials have been discussing the matter for a week with the White House Office of Management and Budget and the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office. They finally decided to let the automatic, across-the-board cut take effect and to fix the problem later.
The blooper involves $403.5 million in targeted foreign loans for the purchase of American-made military equipment. The sum should have been considered part of a $4.6 billion pot of money designated for the State Department and international organizations. Instead, the legislation was written so that the $403.5 million is additional spending, pushing budget authority over its new ceiling.
Under the new and "improved" budget process rules, the automatic spending cuts will hit only the international affairs areas. Under the old rules, a blunder in a single international spending area would have caused cuts in the military and a wide array of domestic programs as well, from battle exercises to Head Start.
"It shows that the sinners will be punished for their sins, as opposed to the entire budget," said a congressional budget expert.
The State Department is hoping for absolution. A senior State Department official said the department had just heard about the error and is "hoping it will be worked out."
Staff writer John Goshko contributed to this report.