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Stopgap Could Mean More Juggling for Border Agencies

“Given Congress’ failure to act, the department is left with no good choices,” Johnson said in an Aug. 7 written statement describing the first set of funding shifts.

For the Department of Health and Human Services, which houses and cares for many of the unaccompanied minors as they await legal proceedings, that could mean once again holding back funding from its refugee programs in case the migration numbers surge. The Department of Justice may have even more trouble keeping up with its growing caseload of immigration hearings, recently put on an accelerated schedule by the administration.

A stopgap could be particularly dire for the Justice Department's Executive Office of Immigration Review, according to Doris Meissner, a senior fellow at the Migration Policy Institute and former commissioner of the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service during the Clinton administration. She said the office has been "significantly under-resourced for years,” and now, with a larger caseload of  immigration hearings and an accelerated docket it must adhere to, a CR would do little to help its already significant backlog.

"The Justice Department has real limits in its judge resources, and that will be intensified by a CR and the absence of any larger appropriation that builds the judge corps in a way that is at all commensurate with this new caseload," she said.

Lots of Uncertainty

After lawmakers return next week, they are expected to advance a two-and-a-half-month CR that would extend through the middle of December. That would clear Congress through midterm and leadership elections in November and open the door for potential omnibus negotiations in the lame duck. But there's a good chance the CR could be extended beyond then.

Like last year, appropriators could huddle in December to cobble together a wrapup spending package for the entire federal government. But if Republicans capture control of the Senate in November, or if lawmakers simply can't reach a deal, they could punt fiscal 2015 appropriations work into the new Congress and pass another CR in the interim.

In the meantime, agency heads will have to tread cautiously under a CR, essentially hoarding money to pad their budgets to protect against the unknown.

“Since you don’t really know how much money you’re going to end up with, I think agencies have a tendency to be more conservative, especially at the beginning of the year because they don’t know what their final budgets are going to look like,” said Philip Joyce, a University of Maryland professor and interim dean who has written several books on budgeting, including “Government Performance: Why Management Matters.”

Federal offices have at least some certainty knowing that last year's budget deal (PL 113-67) locked in discretionary funding at $1.014 trillion for fiscal 2015, which could help with agency planning post-December.

Reprogramming and Transfers

In order to protect immigration-related programs from drying up early, Cabinet officials have some ability to shift funding and priorities within individual program accounts under a CR.

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