This article is in the news archives --- for current news go to the Third Branch News.
Growth of AO Budget Lags Behind that of Judiciary
The cautiously optimistic outlook for the Judiciary's fiscal year 1997 appropriation reflects a continuing commitment on the part of Congress to fund criminal justice programs. It appears that the FY 97 budget may also provide some welcome relief for the Administrative Office, whose budget and staffing increases have not kept pace with the Judiciary as a whole. The AO's budget has been frozen for three out of the last four years, and this has meant that the amounts appropriated for the AO were insufficient to cover the rate of inflation in costs. As a proportion of the total Judiciary budget, the AO's share had decreased from 2.6 percent in 1981 to 2 percent by 1991, and by 1996, its share dropped to 1.6 percent.
Consistent with growth in law enforcement and criminal justice areas generally, the federal Judiciary's budget grew 50 percent over the past five years. However, over this same period, the AO's direct appropriation rose only 20 percent. The number of positions in the Judiciary increased 10 percent since 1991; the AO's directly authorized positions increased only 3 percent.
Over the past few years, Congress has authorized positions for the AO funded on a reimbursable basis from other Judiciary line item appropriations accounts so that critical programs and services could be provided in, for example, court automation support and court security. The reimbursable funding helped the AO's overall funding grow by 11 percent to 31 percent, still substantially below the 50 percent increase for the Judiciary overall. With the reimbursable positions, the number of AO authorized staff rose 8 percent. However, due to strict staffing control policies, including a hiring freeze and a reduction plan for automation positions, the reality is that the actual number of on-board staff has grown only 4 percent since 1991.
The AO's appropriation, which is 1.6 percent of the total Judiciary budget, is very small compared to other government supported entities. Comparative figures for the Department of Justice show that the funding for administrative support activities in its management and administration accounts represents a much higher percentage of total funding. For example, the management and administration account for U.S. attorneys is 4.1 percent of its total appropriation; for the Federal Bureau of Investigation, 4.7 percent; for the Immigration and Naturalization Service, 7.6 percent; for the Bureau of Prisons, 4.8 percent; and for the Drug Enforcement Administration, 9 percent of the total DEA budget.
The AO provides support to the Judicial Conference and its committees, and to 1,500 federal judges and 27,000 Judiciary employees in more than 800 locations throughout the nation. As AO Director Leonidas Ralph Mecham testified in May before the Senate appropriations subcommittee responsible for the Judiciary's budget, "Court operations throughout the Judiciary are affected by AO staffing reductions. For example, an annual seminar for court budget and accounting personnel was recently canceled due to a lack of AO staff. . . . Another example is our inability to provide timely information to decision makers who are attempting to develop policies of importance to the courts and the nation. Over the past five years, requests for information from Congress, the GAO and other interested parties have almost doubled while the AO staff responsible for gathering, processing, and interpreting court statistics has fallen by 15 percent. . . The low staffing level and hiring freeze in the AO are also affecting our ability to support adequately Judiciary law enforcement activities, such as probation and pretrial services. For example, the districts could make far greater use of home confinement and electronic monitoring if there were additional AO staff support available to provide training and on-site technical support."