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Why Congress Budget Train Is Seldom on Time

If spending bills aren't passed by Friday, a government shutdown is possible.

President Clinton sounded like an impatient stationmaster as he warned this week that "time is running out" for the Republican-led Congress to pass fiscal year 1999 spending acts and prevent a government shutdown.

Meanwhile, House and Senate appropriators seemed like harried engineers on a lurching locomotive, hitching up loose cars in a bid to get the overdue legislation home by this weekend.

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As in most years, the 1999 funding bills are stalled over important disputes - both within the GOP and between Congress and the White House. Key issues range from the size of an aid package for hard-hit US farmers, to census sampling in 2000, to $18 billion in financing for the International Monetary Fund (IMF).

The stakes of further delay are potentially high. All 13 spending bills must be finalized by midnight tomorrow - or another stopgap funding measure passed - to keep the federal government running. As of Tuesday, the Republicans had sent the president only five of the 13 bills, several of which he has threatened to veto.

Given the inevitability of this annual spending exercise, why does Congress's appropriations train almost never run on time? Indeed, in the past 15 years, Congress has finished the bills only once by the Oct. 1 deadline, according to congressional staffers.

The impact of inertia

One answer, say experts, is the general inertia of Congress, which is a highly decentralized, fragmented body with 435 representatives and 100 senators.

Often the wheels of lawmaking turn so slowly throughout Congress that members attach other legislation to the spending bills, explains Elizabeth Morra, spokeswoman for the House Appropriations Committee. At least the bills on funding are guaranteed to move, unlike many others.

"Sometimes, we are the only train running," adds Ms. Morra. As a result, the bills are loaded down with hard-to-pass legislation left unresolved by the "authorizing" committees that deal with policy questions.

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Another reason for the time lag is the sheer magnitude and complexity of the bills which involve programs totaling some $550 billion each year.

The funding decisions are made more difficult by increasingly stringent spending caps that were imposed in the mid-1990s and currently extend through fiscal year 2002.

"Members don't rush to make decisions," says Stanley Collender, managing director of the federal budget consulting group at Fleishman-Hillard Inc. in Washington. "And these are tough decisions," he adds.

Finally, both the growing openness of the appropriations process to public scrutiny - and the public nature of these government programs versus other spending - make it more contentious, say analysts.

"It inspires intense fights because ordinary citizens see that part of government more," says Rudolph Penner, former director of the Congressional Budget Office and a senior fellow at the Urban Institute in Washington.

Last-minute maneuvers

This week, Congress is expected to bring the number of spending bills passed and sent to the president to seven or eight. The remaining five or six most contentious bills will be rolled into an omnibus package to try to avoid presidential vetoes.

Congressional GOP leaders in recent days have signaled they are willing to drop some minor demands and are open to compromise on divisive issues such as abortion funding and whether to notify parents if their children request contraceptives.

Republicans have also indicated they are likely to approve $18 billion sought by the White House for the IMF, as long as Democrats agree to proposed reforms of the international lending organization.

Remaining sticking points for Republicans and Democrats, which they will try to resolve this week, include whether to use statistical sampling in the 2000 census - a sensitive issue because the census determines the redrawing of congressional districts. Also, a large gap remains between the $4.1 billion farm-aid package sent to Mr. Clinton this week and the $7.3 billion the White House requested.

Several factors help give the president the upper hand over the GOP-controlled Congress in this year's appropriations debate, experts say.

Above all, Republicans seek to avoid causing another government shutdown such as the one in 1995-96, which proved politically devastating for the GOP. "I find it hard to believe the Republicans would allow another shut- down to occur, unless they have serious kamikaze tendencies," Mr. Collender says.

The Republicans also want to avoid giving Clinton an opportunity to shift attention away from his affair with White House intern Monica Lewinsky. Finally, lawmakers are eager to strike deals with the White House so Congress can return home to campaign for the November elections.

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