House appropriators gird for spending battles

Already struggling to divide $784.5 billion in discretionary spending among hungry subcommittees, House appropriators say their job has been made even harder by a fiscal 2004 budget resolution they charge cheats them out of as much as $7.6 billion.

Although House and Senate Appropriations committees face cash shortages, House appropriators are particularly concerned about making good on the budget resolution's $7.6 billion in unfunded promises. Most of those promises were made to win the votes of reluctant House GOP members.

Even though the House Appropriations Committee has 13 subcommittees, the budget resolution distributes discretionary dollars into 18 different categories, or "functions," the last of which is a catchall for "allowances." Consider it a cousin of the so-called "magic asterisk" that Ronald Reagan's Office of Management and Budget director, David Stockman, used to control his budget numbers.

Many Republicans were unhappy with cuts called for in the resolution-so, to secure votes, the Budget Committee and GOP leaders added more money than President Bush requested for politically popular programs such as special education, impact aid to local school districts, the National Science Foundation and veterans' medical care.

But those vote-winning increases were not offset by specific cuts. Instead, the budget simply shows minus $7.6 billion in the allowances function. Appropriators are unhappy they must make the cuts, especially when the $784.5 billion limit already requires potentially unsustainable cuts in domestic spending for other priorities, such as homeland security.

Budget writers and many in leadership argue this happens every year, and point out that the $7.6 billion shortfall is only as real as all the other nonbinding assumptions in the budget.

Still, appropriators said the $7.6 billion plug is a bigger problem this year. With Republicans in control of Congress and the White House, the GOP will be under greater pressure than ever to stick to the $784.5 billion limit. In addition, the budget is already $2.2 billion smaller than the president's request. Authorizing committee chairmen who won extra money are now under the gun to secure it in the appropriations process.

House Veterans' Affairs Chairman Chris Smith, R-N.J., is already fighting for the $1.8 billion increase over the Bush budget that he and at least five other lawmakers held out for last month. Smith said he has met with GOP leaders and House VA-HUD Appropriations Subcommittee Chairman James Walsh, R-N.Y., and will continue to do so. Smith said he has "a very strong faith that the argument we made is persuasive enough" to get the full amount.