A year after President Bush pledged a grand reordering of the federal government in the wake of the attacks of 2001, Congress has produced a 2003 budget that largely leaves domestic priorities unchanged, while masking spending hikes that promise to exacerbate budget deficits for years to come.
Congress finally completed work on its 2003 budget last week with the passage of a massive, $398 billion spending bill that funds every aspect of the government outside of the military.
The government this year will have $763 billion in so-called discretionary budget authority, the expenditures that are subject to Congress's annual spending bills, according to the Congressional Budget Office. That is up nearly 10 percent from 2002, when the government's discretionary spending totaled $696 billion.
Congress added about $14 billion of discretionary spending to the president's bottom line, said James W. Dyer, the Republican staff director of the House Appropriations Committee.
But Bush claimed victory. "This budget will provide valuable resources for priorities such as homeland security, military operations and education, while adhering to the spending restraint set forth in my budget," he said in a statement. "I look forward . . . to continuing a course of fiscal discipline."
Except for a dramatic increase in defense spending, however, the budget does not look much different from spending plans approved before the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. And only through budget gimmickry did Congress even come close to adhering to the president's standards of fiscal discipline.
At best, lawmakers and congressional aides from both parties say, the spending plans for this fiscal year represent a good-faith effort to inch the government toward Bush's vision.
At worst, they amount to a sham that at once shortchanges terrorism defense and masks large increases in other spending that will raise the cost of government for years to come.
The budget "is not only too big. It's bigger than we say it is," said Rep. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), a leading critic of Congress's budgetary system.
Rep. David R. Obey (Wis.), the ranking Democrat on the House Appropriations Committee, called it "the flimflam game of the century."
Last February, Bush unveiled a budget request for fiscal 2003 that made the case that the dramatic new threat posed by international terrorism mandated major changes, including huge spending increases for the military and homeland defense and austerity in virtually every part of the government not mobilizing to fight the war on terror.
A year later and more than four months into this fiscal year -- which began Oct. 1, 2002 -- Congress finally completed work on its 2003 budget last week. Rather than passing its 13 annual spending bills with any semblance of order, Congress was able to forge agreement only on two separate military bills last year. Lawmakers then rolled the remaining 11 bills into one mammoth document that few lawmakers had read before they voted it into law Thursday.
At $763 billion, discretionary spending appears to be largely in line with the president's original request of $755 billion. But that number substantially understates the growth of federal spending, congressional aides said. Highway spending for 2003 was increased by $4 billion over Bush's line in the sand, but that spending comes out of an "off-budget" and invisible trust fund.
Congress also included increases in Medicare payments to hospitals and physicians that could cost as much as $54 billion over the next 10 years. But Medicare payments are considered "mandatory" spending -- not subject to yearly appropriations -- so the increase does not show up in the $763 billion discretionary spending figure. The money is supposed to come out of the $400 billion that Bush has pledged to spend over 10 years to fund a Medicare overhaul and provide a prescription drug benefit for seniors, but no such plan exists.
Also not counted is $2.2 billion in "pre-funding" promised to elementary and secondary education for the 2003-2004 school year. And $3.1 billion in drought relief to farmers is supposedly offset by cuts to a farm conservation fund that is not supposed to materialize for years to come, House Appropriations Committee aides said.
In all, Congress will spend about $10.5 billion more this year than the budget indicates, appropriations staffers said Friday. And the White House is already at work on a request for supplemental military spending expected to exceed $20 billion.
"There was not a real commitment to fiscal discipline here," said Stanley E. Collender, a federal budget expert at Fleishman-Hillard Inc., a public relations firm. "This was, 'Let's do some gimmicks to make it look like the president got what he wanted.' "
Even so, Bush was unable to secure much of the funding he championed after the 2001 attacks. For instance, in his 2003 budget, the president labeled as "Mission One" a $3.5 billion request for "first responders" -- firefighters, police officers and emergency workers -- who would be the first to reach the scene of another attack.
To get that $3.5 billion, Bush had hoped to eliminate other local law enforcement programs, such as the Clinton-era COPS program and the Edward Byrne grants designed to help fight violent and drug-related crime.
But Congress did not eliminate those other programs. Instead, lawmakers added $1.2 billion explicitly for first responders.
"That's a Bush loss and a loss for the nation," Dyer said.
A Customs Service initiative to begin inspecting giant shipping containers for explosives received $12 million of the $57 million that Customs officials said they needed. And an "urgent" request from Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham for $379 million to secure nuclear materials was answered with $125 million.
After facing criticism that he was not asking the public to share the sacrifices needed after Sept. 11, Bush used his State of the Union speech last year to sound a call for all Americans to serve their country through volunteerism. In his budget, the Federal Emergency Management Agency would create a new Citizen Corps with $200 million. The Corporation for National Service would see a 56 percent increase, to $636 million, to fund the president's new USA Freedom Corps. The Peace Corps would get a significant funding boost, to $325 million.
Congress ignored Bush's request for a Citizens Corps. The Corporation for National and Community Service ended up with a funding cut, and the Peace Corps received $297 million.
Bush also sought a $200 million boost to aid for Israel and $15 million in aid for Palestinians living in the West Bank. He got neither.
Congress's failure to fund these initiatives, coupled with its inability to stay within the president's spending limits, has produced carping from all sides. Democrats have charged Bush with shortchanging homeland security while he pursues hundreds of billions of dollars in tax cuts that they say will largely benefit the wealthy.
Senate Democratic Leader Thomas A. Daschle (S.D.) and House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) sent a letter to the president on Friday, stating, "At this time of heightened threats and mounting tensions, Democrats believe we must immediately fund a robust homeland security plan for America. It is indefensible that you have not made funding for homeland security your top priority. Instead, you have advised Americans to buy duct tape, plastic sheeting and bottled water."
At the same time House conservatives are lamenting that Bush did not hold firmer to his bottom line on spending.
But most lawmakers were ready to cut both themselves and the president some slack, then roll up their sleeves to start working on the 2004 budget.
"To some degree, we've moved in the right direction," said Rep. John Shadegg (R-Ariz.), who led a conservative fight to bottle up the appropriations process until spending could be reined in. "My gut tells me the only conclusion of all this is it's very hard to change Washington."