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Stopgap Could Mean More Juggling for Border Agencies

Days after Congress skipped out of Washington for recess last month, Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson announced plans to shift some $400 million in funding from other agency programs to manage the Southwest border crisis.

Johnson outlined what was akin to a funding Band-Aid: a set of budgetary contortions aimed at providing the two agencies with the brunt of the department’s immigration jurisdiction with enough funding to limp through the remainder of the fiscal year. He said the action was necessary since Congress could not agree on a way to give agencies emergency funding to cope with the surge of Central American child migrants.

The federal agencies on the front lines of the crisis could be left with more of the same in the months ahead if Congress passes a stripped-down continuing resolution without additional funding to manage the surge, as some Republicans have recently suggested. 

Such a stopgap would avoid a shutdown and keep the federal government operating past Sept. 30. But by stretching prior-year spending levels and policy directives into the early months of fiscal 2015, a CR could leave federal officials with old guidance and little flexibility as they look to respond to a rapidly changing situation.

“A CR is always a disaster for agencies and departments just in doing routine functions. Now add an unprecedented humanitarian crisis on top of it, and it’s really going to be a challenge,” said Julie Myers Wood, who runs Guidepost Solutions, a consulting firm, and who headed Immigration and Customs Enforcement during the George W. Bush administration.

Supplemental Redux

Before leaving for the August recess, lawmakers considered drastically different border spending bills (HR 5230, S 2648) but did little to compromise on the issue.

The White House and immigration overhaul advocates continue to push Congress to act on the supplemental when lawmakers return from recess. However, the widening chasm between the parties on immigration — exacerbated by the administration's deliberations over new executive actions on the issue — and waning press coverage of the border crisis could diminish the odds for a compromise.

If Congress cannot agree on special funding provisions — known as anomalies — to direct toward border agencies, a “clean” stopgap would help relieve front-line agencies by replenishing their coffers. That would aid programs that have seen their accounts run dry, as well as agencies like the Transportation Security Administration, which had some of its funding siphoned away in order to help buoy Customs and Border Protection and ICE. 

But the benefits would likely stop there.

For starters, a CR would lock in fiscal 2014 funding levels and policy directives with few new resources for managing the migrant crisis for the first months of fiscal 2015. Since the Office of Management and Budget and federal agencies typically start preparing their budget proposals about 12 months before the start of a new fiscal year, that means agencies would continue to work off directives developed back in 2013, well before the events at the border were perceived as a crisis.

For DHS, a stopgap without any border anomalies could force officials to continue to raid other agencies' coffers, including Federal Emergency Management Agency disaster relief accounts and the Coast Guard, to prop up ICE and CPB if border apprehensions continue to remain high.

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