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March 2012

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This article is in the news archives --- for current news go to the Third Branch News.


Economy Subcommittee Has Oversight Role on Budget

Judge Robert Broomfield (D. Ariz.)

Judge Robert Broomfield (D. Ariz.)

Judge Robert Broomfield (D. Ariz.) has been a member of the Judicial Conference’s Budget Committee since 1997, and chair of the Committee’s Economy Subcommittee since 2003.

The Economy Subcommittee was established by the Judicial Conference in 1993. What was the impetus behind the Subcommittee’s creation?

The Economy Subcommittee, a part of the Judicial Conference’s Budget Committee, is charged with coordinating the efforts of the Judiciary to achieve fiscal responsibility, accountability, and efficiency in its overall operations. At the request of Congress, the Subcommittee was created to serve an oversight role similar to that which the Office of Management and Budget performs for the Executive Branch.

Back in 1993, Congress was concerned that the Judiciary’s annual budget requests were too large and that there was no oversight and review within the Judiciary of our request. The creation of the Economy Subcommittee of the Budget Committee was an effort to improve and enhance the relationship of trust between the Judiciary, through its Budget Committee, and the Congress, through its House and Senate Appropriations Committees. In short, the role was to demonstrate to Congress the Judiciary’s stewardship of the funds entrusted to it to operate. As a consequence, it sought to foreclose the need for any further enhanced oversight of the Judiciary’s budget by the Congress or possibly by the Office of Management and Budget.

Since 2005, as an outgrowth of the Judiciary’s 2004 budget crisis, the Economy Subcommittee’s work has been complemented by the creation of another subcommittee of the Budget Committee, the Congressional Outreach Subcommittee, which has the responsibility to maximize the Judiciary’s annual appropriations. This one-two punch has served the Judiciary well.

How is the budgetary climate different today?

In the 1990s and into the 2000s, while the budget climate was difficult, the discussion generally centered on whether the Judiciary could manage with an increase from Congress that was in the single digits. Today’s budget environment is dramatically different. Budget cuts—actual reductions from one year to the next—or freezes will become the norm. Success for us is now obtaining any increase whatsoever, or simply achieving a freeze from one year to the next.

Another factor is our country’s annual budget deficit and the national debt. The late 1990s saw balanced annual budgets, with budget surpluses, not deficits. We are now in the fourth consecutive year of annual deficits exceeding $1 trillion, with a cumulative national debt approaching $16 trillion. The financial turmoil we see in Europe threatens our own economy as well. All of this was nearly unthinkable 20 years ago.

What is the Subcommittee’s current role/function?

In recent years and currently, the Economy Subcommittee has played a central, coordinating role in the Judiciary’s cost-containment efforts by working collaboratively with the chairs of the nine program committees with spending authority to develop and implement cost-containment initiatives, consistent with the Judiciary’s constitutional and statutory responsibilities. If not for the excellent efforts of these program committees in recent years the Judiciary could not have survived the increasing limitations on its annual appropriations.

The Subcommittee also continues to review annual budget requests from these committees and develop recommendations for the full Budget Committee to consider. The Subcommittee also reviews long-range (5 to 10 year) budget forecasts developed by the Administrative Office.

Would you walk us through how your Subcommittee works with program committees of the Judicial Conference as they formulate the budget?

The budget-making process begins approximately 18 months prior to the fiscal year in question. Each year, in the Spring, the Budget Committee Chair, with the advice of the full Committee, provides general guidance to these spending committees as to an amount of an annual increase which the Budget Committee feels could be fairly and credibly put before Congress. One of the key cost-containment practices applicable to each spending committee are budgetary caps adopted by the Judicial Conference upon the recommendation of the Budget Committee. The chair’s annual guidance letter I mentioned may contain a request which is less than these budget caps. The Economy Subcommittee works with each spending committee to assist it in remaining within the request in this guidance letter and the budget caps. In turn, the program committees submit their proposed budget requests to the Budget Committee. The Economy Subcommittee reviews these requests and makes recommendations to the full Budget Committee each fiscal year.

In July, all of the spending committee chairs meet with the Budget Committee to discuss their proposed budget requests. The Economy Subcommittee recommends to the full Budget Committee a proposed budget for the ensuing fiscal year. The Budget Committee, in turn, recommends a budget to the Judicial Conference. The Conference-approved budget is sent to the President, who by statute must submit it to Congress “without change.”

Why is cost containment important now?

Cost containment is vital and critical to the budgetary process. Without the cost-containment efforts by the spending committees and others, the Judiciary’s budget would be viewed as unacceptable and not credible to the congressional appropriation committees. As difficult as this budgetary process is, these cost-containment efforts account for, in a major way, our success with the appropriation committees. They build that trust so essential to our relationship with the Congress. We are viewed favorably by our appropriators, and cost containment allows us to build on that viewpoint.

We have begun a new round of cost containment recognizing that we need to do more. This next round of cost-containment initiatives will be more difficult and may require us to make choices that we would prefer not to have to make. But we are committed to doing everything we can to conserve resources and be good stewards of the taxpayers’ money. We will take these difficult steps with the belief that they are essential to positioning the Judiciary for the fiscal realities of today and the future.

How might some of the cost-containment proposals impact judges and court staff?

Up to now, most cost-containment efforts have had limited effect on judges; the most notable was the Judicial Conference’s September 2007 limitation of one career law clerk per chambers. Most of the cost containment efforts have affected the clerks’ offices, and probation and pretrial services offices. Because of the significant reductions projected in future budgets, however, all judges ultimately may feel the impact of cost containment to a greater degree.

Future fiscal years are likely to be more difficult than ever before. The major portions of the Judiciary’s budget are people and space. Future limitations on funding for personnel are likely and may reach a point where it may affect chambers staff.

This is why cost containment is so vital. The more successful Judiciary-proposed cost-containment efforts are, the less likely it will be that more draconian budgetary limitations will be imposed by Congress.

What are some of the other cost-containment efforts that are under consideration?

One of the new initiatives is to maximize the implementation of shared administrative services among the courts of appeals, district courts, bankruptcy courts, and probation and pretrial services offices. This will reduce the duplication caused by multiple human resources, procurement, financial management, and information technology staffs in a single judicial district or circuit. This effort will reduce staffing and overhead costs and streamline administrative processes in the courts. It could also lead to enhanced service levels as administrative staff are able to become more specialized.

Through the program committees, efforts are underway to update staffing formulas to include best practices, benchmarks, performance standards, incentives for efficiency, and shared administrative services. Similarly, standardized approaches to delivering information technology products and services to the courts are being developed. Efforts to continue to reduce the amount spent on law books and law libraries in recognition of the increased reliance on computers to perform legal research are ongoing. Another ongoing effort to reduce space costs contemplates, to the extent practicable, relocating probation and pretrial services offices out of leased space and moving them into existing courthouses as well as identifying and seeking to close underutilized facilities.

Another cost-containment benefit came from the well-known Case Management/Electronic Case Files system. It is so beneficial that efforts to develop the Next Generation CM/ECF are well underway.

Through the IT program, certain computer servers in the 94 districts have been consolidated to servers in only a few locations. Likewise, the Probation and Pretrial Services Offices have been consolidated in all but 23 districts nationwide.

Extensive savings have also been realized in all Probation and Pretrial Services Offices through early termination of supervision; waiving, modifying, or expediting pre-sentence reports; and monitoring location of persons in several ways.

In identifying these and other new cost-saving ideas, the AO’s court advisory groups were involved, so that we had the perspective of our front-line workers when considering cost-cutting measures.

There are scores of other ideas which individually will result in cost savings or containment in small ways, yet, collectively, they will add up.

How do the Judiciary’s efforts to economize affect our annual appropriations request?

Our Congressional appropriators are aware of our cost-containment efforts developed over the years since the creation of the Economy Subcommittee and accelerated in recent years, and are appreciative of them.

Again, it’s that trust factor which has resulted in Congress making the Judiciary a funding priority even in difficult fiscal times. This does not mean we receive everything we ask for from Congress; however, in recent years, including for fiscal year 2012, the Judiciary has fared better than most other federal agencies and entities.

How has Congress reacted to the work of the subcommittee?

As I said, we are absolutely transparent with the Congress and it is aware of our efforts to contain costs. Members of Congress and their staffs believe us when we show them we have limited expenses or saved money. In short, we receive better treatment overall by our candor.

What issues will your subcommittee deal with in the coming fiscal year?

We will continue our efforts to work with the spending program committees of the Judicial Conference to enhance their past, current, and future efforts to contain costs, and come up with new cost-containment initiatives where appropriate. We will also have to work with those committees and the full Budget Committee in developing a fiscal year 2014 budget request this summer in a difficult budget climate, one marked with great uncertainty about what our fiscal year 2013 outcome might be. And in all likelihood, we won’t know that outcome until after the elections in November, months after we will have had to complete our work on the 2014 request.