House panel approves fiscal 2004 Labor-HHS approps bill

Preferring to voice their objections rather than amend a bill they oppose, Democratic members of the House Labor-HHS Appropriations Subcommittee Thursday highlighted what they see as deficiencies in the $138 billion fiscal 2004 Labor-HHS appropriations bill the panel reported out on a 11-7 party-line vote.

Appropriations ranking member David Obey, D-Wis., led the charge, saying that Democrats wanted people "to see clearly what this bill does as a consequence of [the Republican-led Congress'] tax-cutting binge." Obey added that it was only fitting that the subcommittee was voting on the fiscal 2004 Labor-HHS spending bill one day after the House "voted to use up $800 million" to repeal the estate tax, a move "that cost us critical reductions in programs [in the Labor-HHS bill] that help working families. We're stiffing an awful lot of good people today."

The bill, which represents a roughly 3 percent increase over the fiscal 2003 level of $132.4 billion, will go to full-committee markup Wednesday. The $138 billion bill also provides a small increase over the president's fiscal 2004 budget request of $137.99 billion. Labor-HHS Appropriations Subcommittee Chairman Ralph Regula, R-Ohio, called the measure a "well-balanced bill," adding, "We've done the best we could with the hand that was dealt us." But Minority Whip Steny Hoyer, D-Md., said: "Our side does not agree with the trade-offs you've made. ... You're cutting our ability to collectively take care of our country."

Obey and Reps. Nita Lowey, D-N.Y., and Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., ran down the litany of program cuts and funding shortfalls to which they objected. Those included: $8 billion less for No Child Left Behind than authorized by law; Title I funding for the disadvantaged, $334 million short of what was promised in the fiscal 2004 budget resolution; $1.2 billion less than promised in the budget resolution for special education; a freeze in the maximum Pell grant; a 2.5 percent increase over last year for the National Institutes of Health, compared to last year's 15 percent increase over fiscal 2002; a $150.8 million cut from last year's level for community service block grants; and $200 million less than the president requested for the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program.

Meanwhile, the House Legislative Branch Appropriations Subcommittee Thursday approved a $2.7 billion fiscal 2004 spending bill under which all legislative agencies will get less money next year-but no staff positions will be cut and cost-of-living and other pay-related cost increases will be fully funded.

The $2.7 billion bill, to which Senate spending will be added later, is $34 million less than enacted in fiscal 2003, a drop of 1.2 percent. It is 10 percent and $290 million lower than the budget request. The measure has wide bipartisan support and passed on a voice vote.

The Capitol Police will not get any more officers, but remain at the current staff level of 1,895. That is an increase of 512 positions since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, but the committee was wary of further growth in the force without a better evaluation of how many officers are needed. In response to growing concern about costs for the Capitol Visitors Center, the bill does not fund any new major construction projects through the architect of the Capitol.