When Congress can't pass a budget, every level of government feels the pain.
Local fire departments may not get federal training grants for rescue workers. Governors say they won't be able to tap federal money to develop and implement emergency plans in response to terrorist attacks. Federal court administrators fear running out of money to pay jurors. And the Department of Veterans' Affairs falls farther behind in caring for sick veterans.
It is all part of the fallout from lawmakers' decision last month to give up trying to pass all 13 appropriations bills and instead fund the nondefense part of the federal government at fiscal 2002 levels until Jan. 11.
Thus, federal agency officials are scrambling to restrict hires, and putting off equipment purchases while still trying to get the job done.
"I'm deeply concerned about the situation," VA Secretary Anthony Principi said yesterday.
With 163 hospitals and millions of veterans needing care, the VA was counting on a $1.7 billion increase in its $22.6 billion annual health care budget at the start of the new fiscal year on Oct. 1. The budget impasse means Principi is still waiting for the money.
"That would have helped us ramp up and hire thousands of health care workers . . . and expand our clinic hours to meet this burgeoning demand for VA health care," he said. "Every day that goes by, I cannot ramp up to meet that increased demand."
Other agencies are feeling the crunch. On Monday, a senior Justice Department official advised state and local governments that hundreds of millions of dollars in new grants, including ones to "first responders" to terrorist attacks, would be delayed until Congress finishes work on fiscal 2003 appropriations bills next year. Also affected are law enforcement assistance grants awarded by the Office of Justice Programs.
"We regret the inconvenience these restrictions on our ability to award funds may cause some of our grantees during this interim period," Assistant Attorney General Deborah J. Daniels wrote in a letter.
She said the budget uncertainty made it inadvisable to issue the grants now, even though applications would be accepted.
Affected by the hold are grants to train and equip rescue workers, firefighters, police officers and handlers of hazardous material who would be among the first to respond to a terrorist attack. Also delayed will be grants to governors for drafting statewide emergency plans and distributing funds for implementing them.
Upgrading the training and equipment of first responders is a top priority of the Bush administration, which is seeking $3.5 billion for it in the 2003 budget that remains stalled in Congress. The amount is nearly six times the $651 million provided in the previous budget.
But in a news release yesterday, Democrats on the Republican-controlled House Appropriations Committee charged that the administration had chosen to "freeze" the grants instead of distributing them based on the old number.
The administration's move "follows a pattern of Bush holding highly trumpeted photo ops with first responders, and then consequently rejecting money for them," said David Sirota, the committee's Democratic spokesman.
An administration official said Bush is "committed to helping first responders, and showed his commitment by asking for 3.5 billion dollars." The Justice Department has provided nearly $1 billion for first responders in the last 12 months, the official said.
John Scofield, a GOP spokesman for the House committee, predicted yesterday that substantial increases would be approved in pending spending bills. But he added: "These are the real-life consequences of not getting the appropriations process completed. We've been saying this all year to anyone who would listen."
Amy Call, spokeswoman for the Office of Management and Budget, said administration officials are not worried that the budget impasse would permanently affect agencies' ability to carry out their missions.
"Certainly the best-case scenario is always to have the fiscal '03 budget bills done in a timely manner," she said, so managers could know what resources they have before tackling new initiatives. "But the government is continuing to function. Operations are continuing to go forward."
Already, federal courthouses across the country have been told to freeze hiring of support staff, delay purchases of furniture and equipment, suspend some travel and put off building maintenance and repairs, said Dick Carelli spokesman for the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts.
If the impasse drags on, the judiciary could not hire all the new court security officers Congress approved after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, he said. By March, he said, the pool of money to pay lawyers for poor defendants will dry up, followed by the money to pay jurors in civil trials, leading to postponement of some court proceedings.
"People are starting to feel the pinch already," Carelli said. "The pinch would turn into something more like a crunch if this is extended."
Among the agencies juggling finances are those preparing to move into the new Department of Homeland Security.
The U.S. Customs Service cannot hire the personnel it needs to beef up inspections at the nation's ports and borders, even as the president warns of the persistent threat of terrorism, said an aide to a Democratic member of the Senate Appropriations Committee.
The Coast Guard, which is awaiting a $500 million budget increase, may have to put off plans to step up harbor patrols and hire more people -- or divert money from drug interdiction and search-and-rescue operations.
Commander Jim McPherson, a Coast Guard spokesman, said the agency had to cut back on travel and defer paying some administrative expenses, such as medical bills.
"Right now, it's creative bookkeeping to keep it going, because the last thing we're going to affect is our search-and-rescue and our port security patrol," McPherson said. "Everything else is going to have to take a back seat. To keep the boats on patrol and the planes in the air, we can do that through January. And then we'll have to reconsider what we're going to do."
The Transportation Security Agency, operating on $466 million less than it expected, has withheld $20 million in truck security grants and has deferred reimbursements to airlines for the strengthening of cockpit doors. Without new money early next year, officials say the agency may furlough hundreds of workers.
Congressional aides and administration officials say Congress will try to finalize fiscal year 2003 spending by the end of January, probably through one or more omnibus spending bills.
However, the 3.1 percent federal pay raise takes effect Jan. 1, meaning civilian employees will be drawing bigger paychecks before Congress has appropriated the money to fund them. If Congress acts quickly, the discrepancy should last no longer than a few pay periods, and agencies would be able to fill the gap temporarily by shifting money from other functions, congressional aides and administration officials said.