Left Blogistan has been all a-twitter the last few days over the possibility that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid might allow a vote on a version of the telecommunications bill that contained retroactive amnesty for the telcom firms that consented to allow the Hedgemony to use them to spy on American citizens. The Pretzelnit has promised to veto any telecommunications bill presented him that does not contain this immunity provision. Many Democratic members of Congress (and even more of those members' constituents) are equally determined not to cave to the White House and establish the principle that personal communications between citizens on American soil are no longer covered by the Fourth Amendment protection against warrantless searches.
Well, Senator Reid pulled the telcom bill from consideration today, saying it was too complex a piece of legislation, and one that too many people had definite opinions on, to warrant rushing it through the legislative process. It will come back when the Senate does in January. As with any good compromise, everybody went away from the table with something to be happy about and something to gripe about. The White House and the telcom companies can hope to influence legislators during the holiday break, and will get a chance at an upperdown vote next month. The Democratic caucus (and Democrats everywhere) can also hope to influence legislators over the break, and did get the bill taken off the table. They're not happy, of course, that it isn't permanently off the table, and the White House isn't happy that it isn't permanently enshrined on the statute book.
Me, I'm happy that putting this legislation off until January means that the Senate will have time to consider the omnibus funding bill that will be heading its way sometime this week, and which absolutely needs to get passed. The government has been running on continuing resolutions since the beginning of the federal fiscal year October 1. What that means is that every branch of the federal government is basically running on the same amount of money it had last year--less a few percentage points, just in case they have to take a cut at some point in response to a congressional action. That, despite having to pay higher salaries because of cost-of-living increases and other raises that took effect at the start of the new fiscal year, higher prices for just about everything, and, of course, ever-increasing demand for federal services and programs. Until Congress passes a budget and the president signs it into law, all those lovely new appropriations we heard about in the budget bill are less than useless. They're authorized, but not appropriated, to use the proper politico-legal jargon. What matters are appropriations--that's the actual money. Authorizations carry about as much weight as one of Bush's signing statements, or that bathetically idiotic "sense of the Congress" resolution about the importance of Christmas.
Why do I care? Partially because I'm pissed that we're yet again practically a full quarter of the way through the fiscal year and still don't have an appropriated budget. That's a dereliction of the prime duty of Congress and one of its most important functions. But it isn't just Congress that's to blame. The Pretzelnit gets his fair share of lumps for playing fast and loose with the numbers, and for his multiple vetoes or veto threats if Congress doesn't give him all, only, and exactly what he asked for. Not surprisingly, Mr. Bush doesn't understand that aspect of constitutional law, either--and while I would very much like for him to receive an education in it, I don't think it should come at the expense of people who depend on the federal government for things like Social Security checks, veteran's benefits, disaster relief, infrastructure repair, or anything else.
There's also a more personal angle. Part of my job depends on there being a budget. I work with faculty members to get grant funding for their research. Most of the faculty members I work with work in areas that are funded primarily or almost exclusively by federal dollars, primarily through the twin behemoths of the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation. Both agencies are tightly stretched and strapped for cash. NSF is supposed to receive the first in a ten-year series of funding increases that will eventually double its budget, if the spending plan is actually adhered to. Meanwhile, my faculty members keep shoving in proposals for their research agendas, and most are still waiting to hear back--long after they would normally have received a decision--about whether or not those proposals will be funded and, if so, at what levels.
This actually does matter to them. And, to a lesser extent, to me. Because while you have a proposal pending with a federal agency, you can't submit an identical or substantially similar proposal to the same agency. You can submit it to a different agency, if there's one that will fund it, but only on the condition that if both proposals are funded, you will refuse one of the awards--which means that the faculty member in question (and me, and quite a few other people) have put in quite a lot of time and effort, only to have to give the money back that we would otherwise have gotten. That's an inefficient use of everyone's time. It can also be an incredibly frustrating thing for a researcher, because as federal research dollars have gotten more scarce, the funding agencies have tightened up the availability and the opportunities for submitting proposals. If you have to wait more than the usual six months between submission of a research proposal and a funding decision on that proposal, you may have to wait another complete funding cycle before being able to submit a revised proposal that (all concerned hope) will have a better chance of being funded. In some cases, that cycle only lasts a few months. In others, it may be a year or more before another opportunity for funding arises. Meanwhile, the researcher has graduate students that need to be supported, research supplies (and possibly equipment) that needs to be purchased or maintained--and insufficient funds with which to do so.
Consequently, I and my colleagues would really appreciate it if Congress would pass an omnibus spending bill before rushing home to spend the holidays with their friends and families. It would make our jobs a whole lot less frustrating. And even though it might possibly (probably) increase my workload this year, that's a trade I'm willing to make. I'd rather be busy and interested than bored and looking for something to do.
Then, after getting the budget taken care of, I would be equally glad to see Congress tell the Boy Who Would Be King exactly where he can stick his demands to grant retroactive immunity to companies who helped him and his minions spy on us in blatant violation of our laws and the Constitution itself. But only after the budget is safely out of the way. Then you can have all the floor fights, cloture votes, and dueling parliamentary procedures you want.