Lawmakers, aides debate role of administration in spending process

At first, the following turn of events might seem unremarkable to Washington insiders: After weeks of inconclusive meetings among themselves, top congressional appropriators and leaders head to the White House to try to break a logjam in the appropriations process. With the president's blessing, the group cuts a deal that allows the spending bills to move through Congress.

Such a scenario is nothing out of the ordinary in the fall or winter, when Congress is trying to wrap up its annual appropriations bills in a way that's amenable to the White House and then adjourn for the year. But the most recent high-level talks weren't endgame negotiations. Instead, these White House talks occurred last month, before lawmakers had even started to work on their 13 fiscal 2004 appropriations bills.

The negotiations centered on the total dollar limit for the spending bills. Specifically, key lawmakers and White House officials hashed out how to provide extra funds that appropriators said they needed-and how much money to devote to President Bush's priorities-so that the bills won't get hung up at the end of the year.

Congressional Republican leaders and Bush administration officials hailed their upfront agreement on spending as a model of efficiency and a blueprint for an orderly appropriations process. After all, the last spending season was a debacle: Congress did not complete 11 of the fiscal 2003 appropriations bills until February, nearly five months after the fiscal year had begun on October 1. This time around, Republicans are determined to show that with Congress and the White House in their hands, they will not allow another proverbial train wreck.

So what, if anything, is wrong with this picture?

Plenty, say some current and former appropriators, who worry that the House and Senate Appropriations Committees are ceding undue authority to the executive branch-and diluting Congress's power of the purse in the process. These experts say that the danger of allowing such White House involvement is that elected members of Congress, who best understand the needs of their districts and their states, lose control of deciding how and where to spend federal resources.

One former Appropriations Committee aide conceded that reaching a deal with the White House before spending bills are even written may indeed make things run more efficiently, "but at what price?" The aide added: "You've lost the ability to debate spending priorities between the two bodies, in committee, and on the floor."

Some insiders are also troubled by the fact that as Congress haggled over its differences during the first third of fiscal 2003, the federal government ran on automatic pilot through a "continuing resolution" that merely extended fiscal 2002 funding levels. One former Appropriations staffer warned that conservative foes of higher spending might argue that the government could just as easily run for an entire year on a CR, a situation that gives Congress little ability to reshuffle funding priorities. The next step, the former staffer cautioned, could be a "permanent" CR, a move that would render the annual congressional debate over spending obsolete.

More than other congressional panels, the Appropriations committees breed institutionalists who care deeply that the legislative branch remains equal to the executive branch in determining how taxpayer dollars are spent. Many appropriators see it as their personal responsibility to uphold and defend the Constitution in every bill they write. That is why some are so alarmed about how this year is unfolding. Former Appropriations Committee staffers from both chambers and both parties contend that the administration is having far too much input in spending decisions. One incensed former aide huffed: "This Congress is walking away from the Constitution."

Republican pragmatists in Congress and the White House brush aside such hand-wringing. They say that paving the way for an orderly and on-time appropriations cycle is far more important than academic arguments about the separation of powers, especially after last year's fiasco.

"There is also the institutional responsibility to work together" to do the people's business, said one Republican leadership aide. The aide added that concerns over congressional prerogatives must be balanced against the facts that the GOP majority is slim, particularly in the Senate, and that money is tight, given the costs of the war, the latest round of tax cuts, and the pending Medicare prescription drug benefits bill. The situation could have made for a very difficult appropriations season without some agreement at the outset.

Republicans are also quick to point out that from the time they took over Congress in 1995 through Bush's election in 2000, then-President Clinton and his advisers routinely insisted on being closely involved in reaching final agreements on spending bills. Top Clinton aides were often in the room on Capitol Hill as year-end deals were being cut, and they negotiated legislative language line-by-line, GOP sources on the Hill and at the White House recall.

But House Appropriations Committee ranking member David Obey, D-Wis., said in an interview that although Democrats controlled the White House and Congress in 1993 and 1994, the Clinton administration deferred to its congressional partners. "We had a good relationship, but they never dictated to us what we could spend," said Obey, who chaired the committee in 1994. The Clinton administration, he added, was "much more closely involved than [then-Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman] Bob Byrd would have wanted-and sometimes more than I did, too.... But in the end, they had to listen to us."

Likewise, one former Appropriations staffer said that while intrusive, the Clinton administration was only involved in the appropriations process at the final stage, when the bills got to House-Senate conference committee. In contrast, "this administration inserts itself very early on in the process," the source complained. And Obey declared: "I think this administration thinks that Article I of the Constitution was a fundamental mistake."

House Appropriations Committee Chairman Bill Young, R-Fla., disagrees. In fact, Young was the one who initially involved House Republican leaders, and ultimately the White House, in this year's early spending negotiations. Young said the move was necessary because the fiscal 2004 budget resolution that Congress passed this spring had gaps in discretionary funding that left his committee unable to proceed with the annual exercise of distributing the pot of money among its 13 subcommittees.

The budget resolution gave appropriators a total of $784.7 billion in fiscal 2004 discretionary dollars. The deal reached in June with the White House freed up an extra $5.2 billion for them to work with-by reducing defense spending by $3 billion and by moving $2.2 billion in education funds into fiscal 2003-without exceeding the $784.7 billion spending limit.

In an interview, Young said he did not allow the White House to weigh in on how to allocate the money among the 13 subcommittees. He emphasized that he only wanted both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue to agree on an overall spending figure and the accounting maneuvers necessary to come to that figure.

"We're the majority party, and it is essential that we work together, while not invading each other's constitutional prerogatives," Young said. The agreement is already bearing fruit, he added. Young said that his committee intends to mark up all 13 appropriations bills, and pass 11 through the House, by the August recess.

Young was also motivated by one of the first rules of politics: cover your tail. He and other appropriators have been frustrated in the past when they labored to fill in funding shortfalls, only to be criticized by GOP leaders and the White House as spendthrifts. So Young sought to involve the higher-ups from the start so they could not later accuse the Appropriations Committee of being out of control, congressional appropriations sources confirmed.

Practical considerations aside, critics contend that the combination of the Bush administration's direct input at the beginning of the process and the increasing involvement of the congressional leadership inevitably means the diminution of the Appropriations committees' power. Yet Office of Management and Budget spokesman Trent Duffy defended the steps the White House has taken. "The White House is working with [the congressional] leadership and the Appropriations Committee chairmen at the beginning to try to make the process work better this year," Duffy said.

A Republican leadership aide agreed that the Bush administration has played a more influential role at the outset of the appropriations process than its predecessors, but chalked that up to the fact that Bush's budget request and the congressional budget resolution set the same limit on fiscal 2004 discretionary spending. "So [the administration] probably felt they ought to be part of any negotiations about that number," the source said. In addition, House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., and Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., wanted the White House involved, the source added. And as key lawmakers and the White House negotiated over funding, it was only natural that the administration would want to protect the president's priorities, the source pointed out.

But the Republican leadership aide also cautioned that with resources stretched thin, despite last month's agreement to free up $5.2 billion, "we're not out of the woods by any measure" on the 13 appropriations bills. The aide said that a crucial test of whether the agreement will hold up will be the administration's willingness to be flexible and to engage in the necessary give-and-take of the legislative process.

"If they are hidebound by their request, and anything over their request is not negotiable," the aide said, "then they're probably setting us up for a situation in September where we have to do CRs." And that, of course, is the very thing that the administration, Republican leaders, and the Appropriations Committee chairmen were seeking to avoid in the first place.

The author is a special correspondent for National Journal's CongressDaily.