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Federal programs on hold along with spending bill

Congress' passage of temporary funding in lieu of a budget for the year leaves many agencies unable to proceed with projects, including those to help the needy, the elderly and AIDS patients.

December 29, 2010|By Kathleen Hennessey, Washington Bureau

Reporting from Washington — Congress' failure to pass a massive spending bill — opting instead to fund the government with a temporary measure — has left dozens of federal programs in budgetary limbo.

Without a secure budget for fiscal year 2011, some agencies have suspended projects long on the books, including a 27-year-old program that helps support food pantries and homeless shelters across the country. A pilot program aimed at helping the elderly stay in their homes also is on hold, and an AIDS drug assistance program will leave thousands on waiting lists.

Lawmakers kept the federal government operating under a so-called continuing resolution that, with a few exceptions, keeps government agencies operating at 2010 funding levels until March.

But the resolution does not account for growth in demand or costs, so it amounts to a cutback for some agencies.

In other cases, agencies are hesitant to proceed without knowing how much money they have to work with — particularly with Republicans promising dramatic cuts to discretionary spending when they take control of the House next year.

Meanwhile, federal agencies are prohibited from funding some grant programs before a full-year budget is approved.

"This ended up being the worst of all worlds for us," said Steve Taylor, vice president of public policy at United Way Worldwide, which administers a federally funded grant program for food pantries and shelters. The program's 2011 allocation has been put on hold.

"People who are in desperate need of shelter and food assistance are not going to get it because of the way this is done," he said.

Democrats blame the situation on Republicans, who yanked support for a last-chance attempt to finance the government before Congress adjourned last week. Republicans called the $1.3-trillion omnibus spending bill bloated with pet projects, and accused Democrats of trying to ram it through.

In its place, lawmakers passed a law that protected some programs and left others scrambling.

The resolution specifically prevented layoffs at the Veterans Administration and the agency that advises the president on telecommunications policy. It protected Pell Grant scholarships to low-income students and some loans to small businesses. It froze salaries for most federal workers for two years.

It also put a hold on all funding for "nondisaster" grants, programs that would have received $4.5 billion under the omnibus bill, according to the Department of Homeland Security. That includes grants to boost security at ports and railroads, and money to states to improve law enforcement response to terrorist threats.

The resolution also froze funding at last year's level for Head Start early childhood education programs. Without an increase in 2011, 65,000 children could be denied services, according to Senate Democrats, who called the resolution random and irresponsible.

"Who among us really believes we should base our recommendations for Defense, Homeland Security and Veterans on whatever level was needed last year?" Sen. Daniel K. Inouye (D-Hawaii), chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, said in a floor speech as the omnibus bill died. "This is no way to run a government."

On this, some in both parties agreed.

Mississippi Sen. Thad Cochran, the ranking Republican on the Appropriations Committee, called the resolution an "inefficient mechanism" that would "constrain the Defense Department and other agencies in carrying out their missions."

Although no one claims to advocate for short-term funding measures, Republicans had reason to prefer the strategy in this case. The party will see its power swell next year, giving it much greater say in government spending.

House Republicans, spurred on by the small government "tea party" movement, have promised to bring nondefense discretionary spending back to 2008 levels, an estimated $100-billion cut from the president's budget.

That will probably spark a budget battle that some experts expect may only result in more uncertainty.

Isabel Sawhill, a budget expert at the Brookings Institution, a think tank in Washington, said she expected more extensions of the temporary funding measure, which she described as "just a minor symptom of the difficulties we face in getting our longer-term fiscal situation under control."

That's not good news for Pamela Wright, an officer at the Emergency Food and Shelter Program in Los Angeles County, which supports 150 agencies in the area. "It makes planning very hard for these agencies," she said.

kathleen.hennessey@latimes.com

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