The Bush White House has praised Congress's failure to pass new spending bills that would increase the federal budget. "There's a new sheriff in town, and he's dedicated to fiscal discipline," White House press secretary Ari Fleischer said.
If you disagree with the new sheriff's budget maneuvers, however, you should probably let the White House know with a phone call rather than a letter. One victim of the president's fiscal discipline, it turns out, is the White House mail operation.
Officials on the House Appropriations Committee say there are no fewer than 17 trailers storing unopened mail addressed to the White House. Those familiar with the problem say that in the absence of adequate funds to screen for anthrax, the mail is piling up.
The White House requested $53 million for its Office of Administration, which includes the mail sorting, for fiscal 2003, which began last month. That's a huge increase from the $35 million the office received in fiscal 2002.
But under the "continuing resolution" passed by Congress and signed by President Bush to keep the government running in the absence of new spending bills, the increase the White House asked for has not come through. The current squeeze is even greater considering that the Office of Administration was given an additional $55 million in emergency funds last year related to the terrorist attacks.
Democrats on the House Appropriations Committee, pointing out that the White House is receiving "significantly less" under the continuing resolution than it requested for fiscal 2003, say this is a fine example of the White House being hoist with its own budgetary petard. "This is just one in a long line of problems that the White House thinks will magically go away by sticking its head in the sand like an ostrich and ignoring the budget crisis," said David Sirota, the committee's Democratic spokesman.
Republicans on the committee have a slightly different take. "I'm aware of the problem -- they've got 17 trailers of backed-up mail," said John Scofield, spokesman for the committee's majority. But, Scofield said, "it's a management problem" causing the backup, not a money shortfall. If the White House doesn't have enough money for the mail, he said, it's because the White House's Office of Management and Budget didn't make an adequate request.
OMB said there are "sufficient funds to continue current operations."
After last year's anthrax-by-mail crisis, in which the bacterium was found in a remote White House mail processing location, the location, in Anacostia, was shut down; it still hasn't been declared "clean" of anthrax. To fix the contamination problem, the White House set up a pilot operation to screen and treat the mail at the Aberdeen Proving Ground's Edgewood Chemical Biological Center, congressional aides said. But that is not supposed to be the permanent home for White House mail operations. To develop such a home, the White House needs about $3.5 million beyond its request, congressional sources said.
Stacia Cropper, chief operating officer in the White House Office of Administration, declined through a White House spokeswoman to be interviewed. The spokeswoman, who asked that her name not be used, said the backlogged mail is from the time of the anthrax attack, adding, "I'm told that there are fewer than 10" trailers full. She said Bush and other top officials still get their mail promptly.
Budget problems are only the latest woes to afflict the White House mail operation since the anthrax scare. In August, two men working for the contractor decontaminating the White House remote mail facility were arrested and charged with mail theft. The two were accused of stealing $35,000 in traveler's checks sent to the White House Federal Credit Union and an undetermined amount of cash for America's Fund for Afghan Children. Bush last October had asked American children to send $1 to the White House for the fund.
Congress is waiting for the White House officials to present a "business systems analysis" explaining how they would fix the mail problem. The proposal, due two weeks ago, is itself delayed.
Bush's plan to expand AmeriCorps, the government's community service organization, has made little progress in Congress, where the program faces opposition from Bush's own party. But the parent of AmeriCorps, the Corporation for National and Community Service, is not standing idle. It has rewritten the AmeriCorps volunteers' pledge.
The new pledge omits the earlier promises to "take action," "seek common ground" and "persevere" in the face of adversity. Instead, it adds a promise to "support and defend the Constitution of the United States" without "mental reservation or purpose of evasion." And it ends with, "So help me God."
The revised pledge has provoked an angry response from former volunteers and a letter of protest from the National AmeriCorps Association, which called the change "fundamentally unnecessary." One former volunteer wrote in a posting on the association's Web site that "Bush is trying to turn a do-good, liberal institution into a youth army for his maniacal wars against foreigners and our very own people."
Christine Benero, a spokeswoman for the AmeriCorps parent, said the proposed change would make the volunteers' pledge "more consistent with the federal oath of office." The new pledge, like the old, would be optional.
Staff writer Stephen Barr contributed to this report.