Deficit Reduction and the Courts
The Budget Control Act (BCA) of 2011, P.L. 112-25, provided a blueprint to reduce the federal deficit by over $2 trillion by the year 2021. Unpopular and politically contentious since its passage, the act mandated across-the-board budget cuts in 2013, followed by reductions to the annual caps on discretionary spending (as well as automatic cuts to selected entitlement programs) in each year from 2014 through 2021. The law provides that failure to adhere to the budget caps in any designated year will trigger another across-the-board sequestration.
In FY 2013, sequestration reduced non-defense discretionary spending by five percent. The Judiciary, like every other component of government, was subject to the mandatory sequestration, resulting in a $350 million funding cut, which constrained court operations nationwide. Throughout the year, budget negotiations continued to be contentious and resulted in a 16-day government shut-down.
Congressional will to reduce the budget quickly subsided, and since 2013, Congress has bypassed the BCA caps by passing a series of budget deals that have raised discretionary spending caps.
- In December 2013, Congress passed a two-year budget deal (P.L. 113-67) that significantly raised the discretionary spending caps for the 2014 and 2015 fiscal years.
- Similarly, in 2015, congressional leaders agreed to replace the BCA spending limits with a plan to raise discretionary caps by $80 billion over two years and suspend the debt limit until March 17, 2017. The cap increase − $50 billion in 2016 and $30 billion in 2017 − was split evenly between defense and nondefense accounts, a precondition that Democrats demanded from the start.
- True to form, in February 2018, the “Bipartisan Budget Act of 2018,” which was signed into law, raised the spending limits for FY 2018 and FY 2019. Nondefense funding was raised $63 billion in FY 2018 and $68 billion in FY 2019.
The Judiciary has benefitted from these adjustments over the past five years and is likely to benefit again in FY 2019.
- In FY 2014, Congress restored the Judiciary’s discretionary funding to its pre-sequestration level of $6.516 billion.
- In FY 2015, the Judiciary received $6.7 billion in discretionary funding, a 2.8% increase over the prior year.
- In FY 2016, the Judiciary was funded at $6.78 billion in discretionary funding, a 1.2% increase over FY 2015 funding.
- In FY 2017, the Judiciary was funded at $6.9 billion in discretionary funding, a 2.2% increase over the prior year’s funding.
- In FY 2018, the Judiciary was funded at $7.1 billion in discretionary funding, a 2.7% increase over the prior year’s funding.
- In FY 2019, the Judiciary was funded at $7.26 billion in discretionary funding, a 2.1% increase over the prior year's funding.
Unable to pass a comprehensive spending bill by the start of the 2019 fiscal year, Congress passed a series of continuing resolutions to keep the government operating. While about half of the 12 appropriations bills were passed and signed into law, the remaining parts of the government, including the Federal Judiciary, were funded through a series of continuing resolutions through December 21, 2019. At that point, a partial government shutdown was triggered and continued to January 25. The Judiciary was able to continue to operate by using court fee balances and other "no-year" funds. The Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts (AO) estimated that federal courts could sustain funded operations through Jan. 31, 2019. The ability to operate that long was attributed to aggressive efforts to reduce expenditures. Courts and federal public defender offices delayed or deferred non-mission critical expenses, such as new hires, non-case related travel, and certain contracts. In addition, in response to requests by the Department of Justice, some federal courts have issued orders suspending or postponing civil cases in which the government is a party, and others have declined to do so.
If the Judiciary had run out of funds, it would have operated under the terms of the Anti-Deficiency Act, which permits mission critical work. This includes activities to support the exercise of the courts' constitutional powers under Article III, specifically the resolution of cases and related services. Each court would have had to determine the staff necessary to support its mission critical work.
Additional information on the Judiciary's appropriation for FY 2013 - FY 2018 is available here.