Dueling for Dollars

By Richard E. Cohen and National Journal

July 7, 1997

As House Appropriations Committee chairman Bob Livingston, R-La., took a breather late last month during a day marked by progress on three of his panel's annual spending bills, he seemed satisfied.

At least so far, work on the appropriations bills is going much more smoothly than it did in 1995 and 1996, when Republicans created mayhem by pushing through steep spending cuts and by tacking on controversial "riders" that embodied their ideological wish lists. "Members now are more aware of what the process will tolerate," Livingston said in an interview. "Their expectations have been tempered."

For congressional appropriators, stepping away from the public spotlight is good news. When they do their job well, they usually attract little attention. But the government shutdowns two years ago and the recent flap over aid to flood-stricken states proved that public attention to the usually esoteric details of spending bills is a signal that the legislative train has gone off track.

So, have the budget rabble-rousers vanished this year, or are they rallying their forces for another round? Livingston contends that the next few months will see smooth sailing. He points out that the five-year budget agreement reached this spring by GOP congressional leaders and President Clinton "has made our job easier" by setting overall spending limits. Enough grumpy naysayers remain, however, on both sides of the Appropriations panel to cast doubt on whether the center will hold.

Conservative Rep. Ernest Jim Istook of Oklahoma, who was a leading architect of the Republicans' confrontational stance toward the White House in 1995 on spending bills, is not ready to throw in the towel. "Only by sticking with your principles can you make a compromise," he said. "We can learn more about the leverage we have if we use it properly."

Rep. David R. Obey of Wisconsin, a liberal who is the Appropriations Committee's ranking Democrat, said that he continues to see many "kamikaze pilots" on the Republican side. But Obey, too, has voiced strong disagreement with both the budget deal and the steps to fill in the details. The pact is "delivering a public expectation that will not be followed up by specific action," he said.

Key tests will come this month, when Congress will be consumed with writing the nitty-gritty of the 13 appropriations bills to fund federal operations. More than $500 billion for fiscal 1998 is up for grabs.

Perhaps the most difficult challenge will be handling the bill that provides money for the Labor, Health and Human Services (HHS) and Education Departments. "I don't feel that we have any breathing room," said Rep. John Edward Porter, R-Ill., who chairs the Appropriations subcommittee charged with crafting the bill so that it addresses Clinton's priorities. "But we will find a way through this."

As Members and their aides brace for another marathon appropriations season--in which they'll vie for a few additional dollars for favored programs and try to balance competing demands--even the optimists concede that many bumps could lie ahead. There's the ever-present threat that Members will succeed in attaching hot-button riders as amendments to the spending bills, which would jeopardize their enactment. And questions linger about whether House Republican leaders, plagued this year by internal turmoil over an array of issues, will have trouble maintaining order during the appropriations deliberations.

Managing the 13 annual appropriations bills requires the task-oriented discipline of a drill sergeant, the spreadsheet legerdemain of an accountant and the savvy of a good poker player. It's difficult enough when the appropriators get their way and limit consideration of what they deem extraneous issues. In 1995, that didn't happen. This year, they hope, will be different.

The Road Ahead

When Republican congressional leaders in early May unveiled the outlines of their budget agreement with Clinton, no one was more pleased--or more guarded--than members of the House and Senate Appropriations Committees.

Even though the high-level budget negotiations delayed the start of their schedule by more than a month, the appropriators were gratified that the budget deal provided them with a framework for their spending decisions. Not insignificantly, the agreement also gave them $17 billion more for fiscal 1998 spending than they would have had under previous budget legislation.

The appropriators still have a long road ahead of them this year. And they retain painful memories of what can go wrong. During the 104th Congress, the result was a four-week federal shutdown in which several appropriations bills became hostage to the fruitless budget talks and were not enacted until fiscal 1996 was more than half-completed.

"It was a disastrous year," recalled Rep. Jerry Lewis, R-Calif., the chairman of the Appropriations Subcommittee on VA, HUD and Independent Agencies. "It was at a time when we weren't used to governing and the Democrats were not used to [being] the minority. . . . Some of us still have the wounds."

The appropriations decisions, in many respects, are made in a world apart from the prevailing political winds on Capitol Hill. The measures prepared by the 13 Appropriations subcommittees each year are the only bills that Congress must enact, at least in some form.

Complicating the appropriators' task is the fact that in recent years, other legislative duchies have failed to pass seemingly routine measures to authorize various federal operations. Those impasses, in turn, have increased the burden on appropriations bills to serve as baggage cars for a host of often-unrelated issues demanding legislative action. "No small part of the problem flows from the fact that the authorizing committees don't complete their work," Lewis said. "So, we [appropriators] end up with the clashes."

In contrast with the sweeping budget bills to cut taxes and curb spending on entitlements such as Medicare--which were the chief congressional focus in June and are the other pieces key to implementing the budget deal--the appropriators' decisions on so-called discretionary federal spending involve hundreds of federal agencies and bureaus, plus thousands of programs. And, also in contrast with last month's budget bill debates, consideration of appropriations bills in the House and Senate chambers typically occurs with wide-open procedures that permit Members to tinker with relatively modest sums of money or with narrow federal regulations.

That, of course, can make life difficult for the appropriators. The contentious issues that are likely to demand their attention in coming weeks range from the conservatives' proposal to dismantle the National Endowment for the Arts to the Clinton Administration's call to add more federal park land at Yellowstone.

Appropriations Culture

In the two weeks before the July 4 recess, House Appropriations subcommittees approved seven of their 13 bills in mostly brief, harmonious sessions. At the Interior Subcommittee, for example, chairman Ralph Regula, R-Ohio, flipped through his roughly 50-page proposed report and read in a steady cadence, "One . . . Two . . . Three . . . ," as he invited Members to review his recommendations.

When Democrats controlled the House, most Members acted in broad deference to the appropriations "cardinals" who chaired the subcommittees. Some were rarely challenged. That pattern changed radically in 1995, with the large number of new Republicans in the House and on the Appropriations panel, most of whom were not as familiar--or as sympathetic--with the committee's aura.

One result was the debate and approval of many controversial "riders" to appropriations bills. Conservatives sponsored a number of these riders with the support of House GOP leaders, but over the objections of Republican Appropriations Committee leaders. The add-ons typically dealt with broad regulatory or policy issues, rather than mere dollar figures. Conservatives, for instance, sparked battles when they tried to add to appropriations bills riders that would have blocked the Environmental Protection Agency from enforcing its core environmental safeguards.

Some of the riders gained an added dimension: They were prime bait for presidential vetoes of entire appropriations bills. Just last month, Clinton cited two riders--one barring the use of sampling procedures in the census, the other creating a stand-by funding mechanism to avoid another government shutdown--to justify his initial veto of the flood-aid bill. Clinton will have the leverage to cancel out provisions of spending bills following the Supreme Court's recent refusal to rule on the constitutionality of the line-item veto law. But it's unclear how long he'll wield the new power before it again is challenged in court.

Appropriations leaders voice hope that they can avoid--or, at least, keep to a minimum--a repetition of the extended battles over riders on spending bills. "We have been through some rocky roads the past two and a half years," Livingston said. "I hope that Members have learned some lessons." The Senate, which tends to be less doctrinaire than the House, has been less supportive of the conservatives' riders.

After the public relations beating that House Republicans took following their failures during the 104th Congress, it seems that many are abandoning their confrontational tack and are taking a more conventional approach to the appropriations bills. "Members are finding that it is more fun to go back home and get plaques from interest groups for what they have delivered," said a veteran observer who regrets the change. "Anyone except a dyed-in-the-wool conservative sees a need to return to constituent politics."

Despite the problems that appropriators had in 1995-96, they ended up hacking away at federal spending: It was reduced by a total of $50 billion below the projected figures for those two years, according to the House Appropriations Committee. "As ugly as the process was, we virtually reversed the growth of government," Livingston noted. Now, with the extra $17 billion up for grabs this year, such spending restraint may be relaxed. Livingston and several of his subcommittee chairmen still insist that they are intent on eliminating more programs. But GOP defections in June on the proposal to scrap the arts endowment may be an early indicator that they will have little success.

If the House moves toward the center to avoid the battles over riders and program eliminations, the result would more closely resemble the Senate, where work on the appropriations bills has generally been more harmonious. There are important differences between the two Appropriations Committees. For one, members of the House panel tend to focus almost exclusively on Appropriations work, while Senators have additional committee assignments. Furthermore, the House committee's staff is more than double the size of its Senate counterpart. And the Constitution mandates that the House move first on the spending bills.

In contrast with the usually tightfisted Livingston at the helm of the House panel, the Senate committee has been chaired by the relatively liberal Mark O. Hatfield of Oregon and, following Hatfield's retirement last year, the often- idiosyncratic Ted Stevens of Alaska. Also, Robert C. Byrd of West Virginia, the ranking Democrat on the Senate panel, has usually been less partisan than Obey, his House counterpart.

A significant change in House operations--which the Senate didn't embrace--was one that prohibits the committee chairman from chairing any subcommittee. Livingston, as a result, has spent far more time than did his Democratic predecessors coordinating the work of his 13 subcommittee cardinals and meeting with party leaders. "He asks, where the hell are the bills and why aren't they moving?" said James W. Dyer, the committee's chief of staff. "He's a prodder, and he likes to see things get done."

The Not-So-Big Spender

As experts assess the overall prospects, several conclude that the appropriations bill facing the stiffest obstacles this year is the measure that funds the Labor, HHS and Education Departments. "Labor-H [as insiders call it] will be the catchall for the problems," said a senior Democratic aide.

The problem stems from the fact that the Appropriations Committees--in divvying up the total sum approved in the budget plan--may have given too small an allocation to their subcommittees with jurisdiction over the Labor-HHS-Education bill. Insiders in both parties lay some blame on the White House, notably Office of Management and Budget (OMB) director Franklin D. Raines.

Raines, in a confidential document submitted to appropriators from both parties in late May, suggested spending figures within the framework of the budget deal for each of the 13 Appropriations subcommittees. Such a formal White House request was unprecedented, said senior congressional aides. Even more striking, Raines's proposed outlays of $75.7 billion for the Labor-HHS-Education bill were a mere 3.4 per cent higher than those for the current year, despite Clinton's extensive requests for additional education and job-training spending.

"It was none of their business to recommend" the figures, said Dyer, Livingston's chief of staff. "But the political animal in me enjoyed coming in higher than Raines did"--albeit by only $19 million.

Porter, who chairs the House subcommittee handling the Labor-HHS bill, has been an avid supporter of increased spending for the National Institutes of Health (NIH), which he contends would be shortchanged by Raines's recommendation. "Both parties disagree with the President's giving lower priority to public health," Porter said. And a House Democratic aide angrily predicted that the Administration will be the "victim" of Raines's manipulations on the bill.

In response to the criticism, OMB spokesman Lawrence J. Haas said, "It's certainly appropriate for the budget director to express our understanding of the budget agreement" that he negotiated. Raines understood that "there might be some negative reaction" to his suggested spending figures, Haas added. He also said that the Administration plans to work with appropriators to find a way to adequately fund health research.

Porter's pledge to increase funds for NIH, which is likely to receive broad congressional support, will clash with commitments in the budget agreement for increased labor and education funds. "There was a technical failure in the budget negotiations that will push the subcommittee into a corner where neither side is comfortable," said a top aide familiar with the issue.

That's not the only problem facing the House Labor-HHS panel, which is expected to consider its appropriations bill shortly after lawmakers return from their July 4 recess. Porter, a moderate on social policy, may face the dilemma of deciding whether to build a majority to his right with the mostly conservative Republicans on his subcommittee, or to the left with Obey. The risk to Porter in not playing ball with the Democrats is that he may also lose support of other GOP moderates.

Rep. Dan Miller of Florida, a Republican on Porter's subcommittee, wants to use the bill to change Labor Department procedures to require more public disclosure of union financial activities--an obvious red flag for Democrats. "We have a strong desire to avoid a shutdown," Miller said. "But I also have a list of my own priorities" for Porter.

In addition, Rep. Henry Bonilla, R-Texas, wants to offer a proposal to limit federal safety regulations on the activities of desk-bound office workers. This "ergonomics" proposal caused great controversy for the Labor-HHS bill two years ago before the item was finally dropped.

Porter's counterpart subcommittee in the Senate, chaired by Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., has had its own problems. The panel failed in 1995 and 1996 to win Senate approval of its Labor-HHS bill. Specter reportedly complained at the time that the funding allocation was insufficient to win passage of his bill. Subsequently, Specter's measure took an indirect route to a House-Senate conference committee--which strengthened Porter's hand as he negotiated the final details of the spending.

Specter, who faces reelection next year, has been using his subcommittee in recent weeks to hold hearings on broad topics such as cancer research and railway-labor relations, rather than to examine the agencies under his jurisdiction.

It's not novel, of course, for Members to use an Appropriations seat to advance their political interests. But the risk for Republicans, if they lose their discipline, is that the what's-in-it-for-me mindset could add new rigors to the task of winning approval of the 13 annual appropriations bills.

By Richard E. Cohen and National Journal

July 7, 1997