Rhetoric often at odds with reality of appropriations process

Congress and the president take credit for creating federal programs and launching ambitious initiatives, but then they often don't put their money where their mouth is.

In his State of the Union address on January 28, President Bush asked Congress for $15 billion over five years to help fight AIDS in Africa. He called the plan "a work of mercy beyond all current international efforts." Bush's request stunned much of Washington, and earned him praise from AIDS activists and the editorial boards of major newspapers.

"Anyone who had forgotten the president's 'compassionate conservative' agenda was reminded last night of his ability to create bold and surprising initiatives that breach the gulf between left and right," declared a New York Times editorial. "There were some of those ideas in his agenda, particularly the most welcome proposal to [fight] AIDS in Africa and the Caribbean." And The Washington Post editorialized: "The most striking new proposal was Mr. Bush's welcome pledge to do more to combat the AIDS epidemic.... Congress should quickly embrace this plan."

Congress indeed moved swiftly to craft legislation authorizing $3 billion a year over five years for the AIDS effort. In fact, as the House passed the bill on May 21, International Relations Committee Chairman Henry Hyde, R-Ill., commented, "Rarely does Congress act with decisiveness for the benefit of so many suffering in the developing world."

Bush praised Congress when he signed the bill at a May 27 ceremony. He had urged lawmakers to finish the legislation before he left for the Group of Eight summit in early June, so he could "take it to Europe with me as a symbol of the great depth of compassion that our country holds for those who suffer." During the president's high-profile tour of Africa in July, he repeatedly touted the $15 billion AIDS relief program.

But it turns out that Hyde was right. Congress rarely acts with such decisiveness. Despite all the talk, Congress and the president won't likely live up to their commitment on AIDS. Appropriations bills moving through the House and Senate target only $2 billion-not the $3 billion promised-for the new AIDS program in fiscal 2004. And to provide cover for congressional Republicans, Joseph O'Neill, the director of the White House Office of AIDS Policy, has sent appropriators a letter stating that $2 billion is sufficient.

Rep. Jim Kolbe, R-Ariz., the chairman of the Foreign Operations Appropriations Subcommittee, which handles the relevant spending bill, said he is in a tight spot. "The president and his advisers didn't help when he went to Africa and talked about $3 billion," Kolbe told National Journal. "It made it difficult for me to explain." Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., the chairman of the Foreign Operations Appropriations Subcommittee in his chamber, agreed: "There is some confusion over this."

Once again, as is so often the case in Washington, rhetoric didn't match reality. The system is set up that way. In the first part of the legislative process, authorizing committees with special expertise in their particular areas write legislation creating programs and calling for certain amounts of money to fund them. Oftentimes, these authorizing bills are approved with great fanfare from members of Congress, followed by grand bill-signing ceremonies at the White House or at staged locales around the country. Reporters write stories about the bills, such as the AIDS legislation, and then frequently forget about them.

Later in the process, however, the Appropriations committees decide how much money should actually be spent on federal programs, when they write the 13 annual spending bills. Appropriators are forced to make tough decisions, because they have limited pots of money to work with and face intense pressure from members and outside interests to fund their favored initiatives.

Few reporters, and even fewer members of the public, follow the arcane appropriations process, which typically doesn't wrap up until the final frenzied days of a congressional session. And even when outsiders do try to follow what is going on, it can be difficult to plumb the massive funding bills, which are sometimes more than a foot tall. It can take a lawmaker days to find out how much money his pet program received.

Much of the time, though, the money appropriated for a program is far less than the amount that was touted at the Capitol Hill press conference or Rose Garden ceremony months before. In fact, James Dyer, the Republican staff director of the House Appropriations Committee, flatly acknowledged: "Appropriators traditionally have resisted the concept of fully funding anything." On the Hill, it's an accepted part of the system.

Robert Livingston, the former Republican chairman of the House Appropriations Committee who was slated to become speaker before he resigned in December 1998, explained that appropriations bills are not designed to meet the funding levels specified in authorization bills. Authorizing committees can pass their bills without any consideration of budget constraints, he said, while appropriators do not have that luxury. "Authorizers look at policy; authorizers spell out what policy is desirable," Livingston said. "Appropriators look at numbers."

The media is part of the problem, asserted former Rep. John Porter, R-Ill., who as chairman of the Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education Appropriations Subcommittee from 1995 through 2000 faced difficult funding decisions every year. "The national media cover the president's budget," Porter said, and act as if money is actually being spent when Congress authorizes new programs. "The average American doesn't know the difference" between authorizing and appropriating, he said.

Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., who was Education secretary under the first President Bush, has seen both ends of the legislative process. "This is a county of big dreams," he said. Reality sets in only when appropriations levels must be established, because "the appropriators have to operate under budgets." Alexander noted that while he was Education secretary, he took heat from lawmakers for sometimes requesting less money for education programs than Congress had authorized. "The departments have to operate under budgets" too, he said, while "the authorizing committees don't."

Dyer agreed, explaining that the annual congressional budget resolution sets a ceiling on spending that makes it impossible for appropriators to meet all of the commitments made by authorizers. "They do a big dog-and-pony show, but when it comes to the top line, we have open warfare about what the top line will be," he said. If you try to explain the way things work to most people, their eyes glaze over, Dyer said. Sitting in his Capitol office, he concluded, "The only people who understand that are within three square blocks of this building."

Even one House authorizing committee chairman conceded that he can authorize programs without seriously considering the bottom line. "It's easier for us who are authorizers," said Rep. Sherwood Boehlert, R-N.Y., chairman of the Science Committee. He acknowledged that chairmen like him give appropriators "an impossible task. Authorizers have to be realistic and work with appropriators," he said. "When we deal with authorizing legislation, we're dealing in isolation. The appropriators don't have the luxury of dealing in isolation."

Likewise, Rep. John Boehner, R-Ohio, the chairman of the Education and the Workforce Committee, admitted: "This dual process we have here is unfair, and it leads to bad behavior."

The problem may be systemic, but congressional Democrats contend that it has worsened recently under Republican control of the White House and Capitol Hill. Democrats complain that the gulf between the rhetoric thrown around when programs are created versus the actual funding levels is much wider than when they ran the show. "It's spectacularly broader," said Rep. David Obey, D-Wis., the Appropriations Committee ranking member. "It has a helluva lot more to do with who leads the House than it does with process."

Obey and other Democrats acknowledge the long-standing disconnect between authorizations and appropriations. Nevertheless, they contend that Republicans are more prone to puff up their accomplishments during the authorizing stage and then later slash funding for key programs to keep within conservative budget constraints and to account for the revenue lost from the Bush tax cuts.

Republicans respond that nothing is new. They argue that they are being blamed for underfunding authorized programs, when Democrats regularly did the same thing while they were in power.

"The Democrats have not lived up to their own rhetoric," House Appropriations Committee Republicans said in a recent statement. They contended that Democrats failed to meet promises on education in 1994, when President Clinton and the Democratic-controlled Congress reauthorized the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. Although the authorization bill called for $7.5 billion in federal grants to the states for the Title I program, which compensates schools for needy students, Congress ultimately appropriated only $6.6 billion.

AIDS Program in Need of an Infusion?

The fact that things were not so different during the Clinton era hasn't stopped Democrats from protesting vigorously over the level of AIDS funding. The new AIDS authorization law specifies spending of $3 billion a year for five years. But Bush's fiscal 2004 budget request sought only $1.7 billion for the AIDS initiative, $2 billion if related malaria and tuberculosis programs are included.

When Kolbe's subcommittee marked up its fiscal 2004 Foreign Operations appropriations bill in the House on July 10, ranking member Nita Lowey, D-N.Y., offered an amendment to restore the AIDS funding to $3 billion, but the panel defeated her proposal. "The Republicans have certainly talked the talk on AIDS," Lowey said in a statement. "Today, they showed that they simply are unwilling to walk the walk. In Africa, the president, the secretary of State, and the national security adviser left the distinct impression that $3 billion would be provided to fight AIDS in [fiscal] 2004. The reality, of course, is that the president requested only $2 billion and the Republicans in Congress are not willing to buck their leader in the name of saving lives."

Kolbe pointed to the letter from O'Neill, the White House's AIDS policy director, that requested only $2 billion this year but committed the administration to the full $15 billion over five years. "These efforts need to be coordinated, deliberate, and should scale up in stages to efficiently and effectively create the necessary training, technology, and infrastructure base to ensure the long-term success of this initiative," O'Neill said in his letter.

Kolbe said no one should be surprised that Congress is appropriating only $2 billion for the AIDS program in the first year. "Tell me, how many authorizations match appropriations?" he asked. "You just don't appropriate all of the money. It shouldn't have been a big deal. But it was made a big deal for political reasons."

When the full House considered the Foreign Operations spending bill on July 23, Rep. Carolyn Cheeks Kilpatrick, D-Mich., offered an amendment to boost the AIDS funding by $300 million, but the effort was defeated. The lower spending level is apparently fine with the Bush administration: In its "statement of administration policy," the Office of Management and Budget declared, "The administration is pleased with the [Appropriations] Committee's strong support of the president's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief."

Asked about the AIDS program at his July 30 news conference, Bush emphasized that he wants to provide a total of $15 billion, but said he did not commit to providing $3 billion in the first year. "We sent up something less than $3 billion because we didn't think the program could ramp up fast enough to absorb that amount of money early," the president said. He added that OMB has come up with a plan to increase the funding as it can be used: "It ramps up more in the out years as the program is capable of absorbing a lot of money."

During the Senate Appropriations Committee markup of the Foreign Operations spending bill on July 17, subcommittee ranking member Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., made clear that he will offer an amendment to boost the AIDS funding from $2 billion to $3 billion when the legislation reaches the floor. But, despite the strong support of Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., for the new AIDS law, the Senate is likely to defeat such an amendment.

McConnell argued that $2 billion is all the administration needs this year for the AIDS program. "The goal here is to get to $15 billion over five years," he said. "If we can only use $2 billion in the first year, that is full funding."

The AIDS initiative is just one example of the mismatch between rhetoric and reality in Washington. Some other recent cases follow.

Inflated Grades on Education?

Not long after Bush signed the No Child Left Behind education bill, keeping a pledge that had been a centerpiece of his 2000 presidential campaign, critics began to charge that he and congressional Republicans were shortchanging the initiative. Not surprisingly, most politicians claim to be good guys when it comes to funding the nation's schools, and sorting out the truth can get dicey.

To be sure, the rhetoric was lofty when Bush went to an Ohio high school on January 8, 2002, to sign the bill, which increased funding for education while at the same time requiring states to develop accountability plans and make other major reforms.

"Today begins a new era, a new time in public education in our country," the president said. "As of this hour, America's schools will be on a new path of reform, and a new path of results." And he went on to promise more money. "So in return for federal dollars, we are asking states to design accountability systems to show parents and teachers whether or not children can read and write and subtract in grades three through eight."

Members of Congress were no less effusive in their praise of the bipartisan legislation, with Democrats and Republicans joining hands in support. "Never before in the history of Congress has there been a bill that will do so much to strengthen our nation's schools and help our children excel in their classes," said House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., a former high school teacher.

Calculating exactly how much money the No Child Left Behind Act authorized-and how much subsequently was appropriated- is difficult, Republicans argue, since the bill had no total authorization level, but instead included funding proposals for numerous individual programs. Nonetheless, the National Education Association, the nation's largest teachers union, estimated that for fiscal 2003, the No Child Left Behind Act authorized programs totaling $29.26 billion, while the Bush administration proposed $22.10 billion, and Congress ultimately appropriated $23.83 billion.

As Congress works on the next round of appropriations bills, Democrats complain the Republicans are underfunding education once again. House Democrats have produced a report contending that the fiscal 2004 Labor-HHS-Education appropriations bill approved by their chamber on July 10 falls some $8 billion short of the education funding that they say was pledged in the No Child Left Behind Act.

Here is a look at how three key programs authorized in the act are faring as Congress works on its fiscal 2004 Labor-HHS appropriations legislation.

For needy students, the House-passed spending bill and the version approved by the Senate Appropriations Committee on June 26 both proposed a $666 million increase, to $12.35 billion, the amount that Bush had requested. By comparison, the No Child Left Behind law had authorized far higher spending for the program- $18.5 billion-in fiscal 2004.

In programs for improving teacher quality, Bush requested $2.8 billion for fiscal 2004, and the House and the Senate committee obliged. No Child Left Behind authorized more-$2.9 billion-for fiscal 2003, and for the years beyond that, instructed Congress to "spend such sums as necessary."

For reading programs, Bush requested $1.5 billion in fiscal 2004, which the House approved, while the Senate committee called for $1 billion. No Child Left Behind had authorized $900 million for fiscal 2003, but appropriators actually went above that level, to $993.5 million. The act did not specify a funding level for fiscal 2004 and beyond.

Democrats in both chambers are incensed, because they claim that in order to win their votes for the No Child Left Behind Act, the White House vowed to seek even more education money than was written into the statute.

Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., the ranking member on the Education and the Workforce Committee, is now one of Bush's harshest critics on education, even though Miller worked closely with Republicans on the No Child Left Behind legislation during 2001, earning the nickname of "Big George" from the president. Miller contends that the White House sold the legislation by promising additional education funding. "The president said, 'You give us the reforms and we'll give you the resources,' " Miller said in an interview.

Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, the ranking member on the Senate Labor-HHS Appropriations Subcommittee, agreed, saying: "It's frustrating for me, because I voted for No Child Left Behind based on the White House's promise that they would push for funding for the program."

Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, also said that Bush linked votes for the authorization bill to increased funding for education. "It was one of the commitments," Snowe said. "It leaves us open to the charge of unfunded mandates."

Boehner, the House Education chairman, denied that Bush and other Republicans made direct promises of additional education funding during negotiations on the authorization law. "I don't think anybody had any expectation that we would meet those numbers," Boehner said in an interview. "The commitment on the part of the president and the Republicans was to provide the money to make this work. And that's what we did." Boehner added, "Anyone who argues that we're not doing enough education funding either hasn't looked at the numbers or is trying to develop a political issue."

Nevertheless, the NEA is preparing to file suit, claiming that Congress and the president are failing to live up to their promises to provide all of the funds needed to implement the No Child Left Behind Act. "NEA is working to get clarity on the huge disconnect between the reality of law and the rhetoric used in promoting it," NEA President Reg Weaver said in early July, as the union prepared for its annual meeting.

Strong disagreements about overall education funding persist, but no one can deny that the federal government has failed to meet its commitments on funding special education for disabled children. Back in 1975, Congress and President Ford signed off on a law pledging to pay 40 percent of the cost of programs to educate disabled children. That goal has never been reached. In fiscal 2003, the federal government provided only 18 percent of all special-education funds.

"Congress has to live with the fact that a program is unfunded," said Sen. James Jeffords, I-Vt., who as a House member sat on the 1975 conference committee that wrote the special-education bill. In fact, Republican reluctance to fund special education at a level acceptable to Jeffords drove him out of the party in 2001-temporarily giving Democrats the majority in the Senate.

Stuffing the Ballot on Election Reform?

After the 2000 presidential election exposed serious weaknesses in the nation's vote-counting systems, Congress responded by passing legislation to reform the election process. The Help America Vote Act authorized $3.86 billion from fiscal 2003 through fiscal 2006 to help state and local governments upgrade their voting systems and meet certain federal standards.

"The administration of elections is primarily a state and local responsibility," Bush said at an October 29, 2002, signing ceremony, surrounded by members of Congress who pushed the legislation. "The fairness of all elections, however, is a national priority. And through these reforms, the federal government will help state and local officials to conduct elections that have the confidence of all Americans."

Because the bill was not enacted until the fall of 2002, Bush had not included funding for it in the fiscal 2003 budget that he released in early 2002. Congress, however, came up short in meeting its commitment to election reform in the very first year of the program: The Help America Vote Act authorized $2.16 billion in fiscal 2003, but Congress appropriated only $1.5 billion.

For fiscal 2004, the election-reform act authorized $1.05 billion, with $1 billion targeted to training poll workers, providing voter education, and generally improving the federal election system. But Bush requested only $500 million-half of what was authorized-for election-reform efforts in fiscal 2004. The House Appropriations Committee set aside $500 million in the fiscal 2004 Transportation-Treasury funding measure it approved on July 24; the Senate has not yet written its spending bill.

Rep. Steny Hoyer, D-Md., an appropriator and one of the key sponsors of the Help America Vote Act, said that states really need $1.5 billion in fiscal 2004. "Most of the states have to have the money," he said. "It means that we need the money now, or it's going to be another unfunded mandate."

On the other hand, Rep. Bob Ney, R-Ohio, another of the law's key sponsors, is more upbeat. He said appropriators might produce as much as $1 billion. "So far, the direction is going well," he said.

But Doug Chapin, director of the Election Reform Project, a nonprofit group funded by the Pew Charitable Trusts through the University of Richmond, said that states and localities have little chance of getting all the money that Washington promised.

"The question is whether they will appropriate everything that is authorized," he said. "That's unlikely." Asked about the impact on state and local election officials who have to meet certain mandates, Chapin said, "If the federal government doesn't come through with the money, they have problems."

Code Red for First Responders?

In the aftermath of the September 11 terrorist attacks, Democrats have repeatedly complained that Bush and congressional Republicans are failing to fully fund homeland-security initiatives. Federal aid for "first-responder" emergency workers, such as state and local police, fire, and hospital officials, is a particular point of contention.

For fiscal 2004, Bush requested $3.5 billion in funding for first responders. The Homeland Security appropriations bills approved by the House on June 24 and the Senate on July 24 met that request. Administration officials and GOP lawmakers boast that the funds will prepare communities to respond to emergencies more effectively.

"The First Responder Initiative will help ... brave Americans do their jobs better," the Homeland Security Department stated in a summary of the program. "Building on existing capabilities at the federal, state, and local level, the First Responder Initiative provides an incentive to develop mutually supportive programs that maximize effective response capability."

But the issue of funding for first responders highlights another way that the rhetoric in Washington doesn't match the reality. In this case, some experts contend, the White House and congressional Republicans are far off the mark of what first responders really need. An independent commission recently reported that pending federal funding levels are totally inadequate.

"If the nation does not take immediate steps to better identify and address urgent unmet needs of emergency responders, the next terrorist incident could have an even more devastating impact than the September 11 attacks," according to a report from the Independent Task Force on Emergency Responders, sponsored by the Council on Foreign Relations.

The commission estimated that the federal government would spend some $27 billion over five years on first responders. But it cited $98.4 billion in unmet emergency-responder needs throughout the nation over that period.

"Covering this funding shortfall using federal funds alone would require a fivefold increase ... to an annual federal expenditure of $25.1 billion," the report concluded. The $3.5 billion pending in Congress is nowhere near that figure.

Insufficient Support for AmeriCorps?

AmeriCorps, a hallmark of the Clinton administration, provides college funds to young people who perform public service work. House Republicans have persistently tried to eliminate the program, but the Senate has always managed to save it. In fact, much to the chagrin of many House Republicans, Bush embraced AmeriCorps, especially in the wake of 9/11, and even pushed reform legislation when the program discovered that it had enrolled more than 20,000 people it could not afford.

"The president believes in AmeriCorps," then-White House press secretary Ari Fleischer said at a June 26 press briefing. "The president thinks AmeriCorps is doing good work across America, helping communities, and providing valuable outlets for people to make contributions and to work hard for different communities across the country."

Bush's fiscal 2004 budget requested sufficient funds to raise the number of AmeriCorps volunteers to 75,000. But the budget increase does not solve the program's immediate problem, which is how to make up for funds lost to mismanagement.

On June 26, a wide variety of corporate leaders purchased a full-page ad in The New York Times calling for an immediate $200 million supplemental appropriation for AmeriCorps. "Last week, because of a series of bureaucratic missteps, hundreds of highly effective AmeriCorps programs were eliminated or drastically reduced," the ad said.

As a fiscal 2003 supplemental appropriations bill worked its way through Congress in recent days, however, neither the White House nor Capitol Hill seemed likely to come through with the level of funding that AmeriCorps supporters say is urgently needed. The White House said it wants a supplemental bill that focuses on disaster relief and aid for fighting forest fires, and that is "clean" of any add-ons. An OMB spokesman declined to comment when asked about the White House's position on any new money for AmeriCorps.

Shortly before the House departed on July 25 for its August recess, it approved a supplemental bill that included no emergency money for AmeriCorps. In the Senate, the Appropriations Committee included $100 million for AmeriCorps in its supplemental, which at press time was awaiting a vote on the floor.

Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., the ranking member on the Veterans Affairs-Housing and Urban Development Appropriations Subcommittee, which funds AmeriCorps, said the president seemed to be talking out of both sides of his mouth. "I'm extremely frustrated," Mikulski said. "The president called for increased national service and more civic involvement. We've got to match resources with rhetoric."

Clearly, the real success of a federal program is not its creation, but whether it receives the money it needs. As Hoyer said about the election-reform bill, "When we passed this bill, I said this is a good bill, but the real test is whether we're going to fund this bill."

But the system is unlikely to change anytime soon. Authorizers love their power to create programs, while appropriators relish their power to decide how much money those programs should receive. As House Appropriations staff director James Dyer put it, "It's an old and painful tale."

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