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The price of House inaction

Congress passed only 2 of 11 appropriations bills. Now some federal agencies don't have the funds they need.

Right in the US Constitution it says that the government runs on appropriations made by law. So how come the departing Congress failed to pass most of the regular appropriations to run the government?

Last Wednesday, President Bush signed one of the last bills sent to him by the 109th Congress. It was, as you might expect, a bill that featured renewed tax cuts; also, as you might expect, opening the Gulf of Mexico to oil and gas drilling. But appropriations for 9 out of 11 agencies – Defense and Homeland Security were the exceptions – were left on the cutting-room floor.

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The bulk of the government was left to subsist on a stopgap spending authority called a continuing resolution. That allows the departments to spend at the same rate and for the same purposes as last year. That is not without cost. Agencies can't start needed new programs, nor scrap unneeded old programs. The Justice Department can't hire needed new attorneys and may have to furlough some of its current employees.

The Energy Department may have to lay off 960 employees. The FBI may have to lose 500 agents. The Department of Veterans Affairs is $3 billion short of what it needs to maintain current services; this according to The Washington Post, which also found a federally funded hospital in Perris, Calif., unable to buy $400,000 in equipment.

Another casualty of frozen appropriations is a $3 million item for AIDS and homelessness programs in San Francisco, and a center for public service in New York. Yes, the former is supported by Speaker-in-waiting Nancy Pelosi. And yes, Ways and Means chairman-in-waiting Charles Rangel supports a $3 million item to establish the center at City College of New York.

But these are small items and huge appropriations bills. The current continuing resolution for the year that started on Oct. 1 runs until Feb. 15. The new Congress con- venes on Jan. 4. It is not likely that nine appropriations will be adopted and signed by Mr. Bush in eight weeks. But not to worry, they can always pass another continuing resolution.

Daniel Schorr is a senior news analyst at National Public Radio.