Congress Adjourns, Decisions on 2003 Spending Still Pending

Lawmakers returned home for campaigning last week without passing a single appropriations bill for the fiscal year that started Oct. 1.

Congress voted instead to keep federal agencies, including OSHA and NIOSH, running at current spending levels until Nov. 22.

As a result of the apparent gridlock, Congress has adjourned more than one year after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11 without acting on several administration proposals that were supposed to be critical to the "war on terrorism." Still awaiting Congressional resolution are:

  • President George W. Bush's proposal to establish a new Department of Homeland Security (DHS);
  • The president's request to increase funding for "first responders" to $3.5 billion;
  • The administration's request to spend $5.9 billion on bioterrorism response and research;
  • Financing the war on terrorism by cutting the budgets of other domestic agencies, including OSHA and NIOSH.

Capitol Hill observers point to several reasons why Congress has been tied up in knots. The debate over whether to go to war in Iraq diverted attention from the president's domestic anti-terrorism agenda.

Second, progress was slowed by genuine and serious political differences between Democrats and Republicans over budget priorities and whether to preserve union work rules in the proposed DHS.

Finally, the election season distracted many lawmakers, and made compromise more difficult, particularly this year as both the House and the Senate are narrowly divided between the two parties, and each could change hands after the November elections. It remains to be seen whether Congress will return for a "lame duck" session next month, and if so, how productive it will be.

OSHA is currently receiving an annual appropriation of $443 million but the president and the Republican-controlled House have called for a small cut in 2003 spending: $437 million. The Democratic-controlled Senate has recommended increasing OSHA's budget to $469 million.

NIOSH faces bigger cuts. The president has proposed reducing NIOSH's current $286 million appropriation to $258 million. Once again, the Senate has been less parsimonious, recommending level funding for NIOSH.

In past years, the final appropriations for NIOSH and OSHA have been closer to the Senate's more generous number, but given the extraordinary political, economic and military uncertainties this year, insiders say it is hard to predict what will happen to the 2003 budget.

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