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Appropriators Balk at HHS Consolidation

Congressional appropriators have quietly scuttled an effort by Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson to consolidate the department’s legislative operations in his office. Critics had seen the move as an attempt by the Bush administration to restrict the flow of information to Capitol Hill on social issues critical to the president’s conservative base.

The language was tucked into the massive fiscal 2003 omnibus spending bill that cleared Congress just two weeks ago and was signed by the president last week. In it, House and Senate conferees said they “have not approved the proposed consolidation of all public affairs and legislative affairs funds and functions in the Office of the Secretary” and rejected Thompson’s bid for nearly $28 million to implement it.

The rebuff from Congress appeared to take at least some in Thompson’s office by surprise.

“At this point, all we’re doing is taking a look at it,” HHS spokesman Bill Pierce said. “We don’t have an official position at this time.”

In part, the money would have been used to transfer staff from the department’s far-flung agencies to a catch-all legislative shop operating under Thompson’s auspices. Press and other “public affairs” activities would also have come under his direct control.

“We were very sympathetic to the secretary’s concerns — I mean, it’s a huge department,” House Appropriations Committee spokesman John Scofield said.

But, Scofield added, lawmakers believed that the various agencies under HHS, such as the National Institutes of Health and the Food and Drug Administration, have “unique identities” that require direct oversight from Congress.

“We need to talk to people who are experts in these areas,” Scofield said. “It wasn’t a rebuke of Thompson. It was an affirmation that he needed some flexibility” in providing information to Congress.

“It’s my understanding that what we did was acceptable to [HHS],” Scofield added.

The move by the conferees caps a roughly year-long struggle between Congress and HHS over the proposed consolidation.

Thompson, who announced the plan last January, had argued the restructuring was a necessary step intended to bring some order to the sprawling HHS universe. There are 50-odd offices under the department that currently have their own Congressional relations and press divisions.

But critics on Capitol Hill saw an effort to ensure that communications with Congress would be placed in the hands of Bush administration political appointees at the top of the department, rather than the career employees farmed out to the various agencies.

Of the career employees at HHS, a top Senate Democratic staffer said, “They’re under a tremendous amount of pressure to reflect the views of the administration” on issues such as stem-cell research and abortion.

A top Democratic staffer on one of the House oversight committees called the proposed restructuring at HHS “anomalous,” suggesting there were political motives behind it.

Congressional insiders suggested that the battle with HHS has been concentrated in the Senate, where lawmakers have complained about foot-dragging and lack of access at the department even before the proposed restructuring.

Indeed on the House side, frequent Bush administration gadflies such as Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.), the ranking member on the Government Reform Committee, have gone out of their way to praise Thompson and his department for timely responsiveness.

Insiders pointed to Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), a social moderate who chairs the Appropriations subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services and Education and related agencies, as the source of additional language in the omnibus demanding “prompt, professional” responses from HHS to any request for information from Specter or his ranking member, Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa).

Further reflecting Specter’s growing annoyance with HHS, the omnibus language goes on to demand that any “scientific information” requested by appropriators from government researchers and scientists “be transmitted to the Committee on Appropriations, uncensored and without delay.”

Specter did not respond to a request for an interview on Friday.

Pierce, however, defended the performance of HHS in responding to lawmakers.

“The secretary has made it an imperative at the department that we speed up our response time [with Capitol Hill] — and we have done that,” Pierce said, citing steps taken toward “greater internal coordination.”

Pierce suggested that the consolidation sought by Thompson would go a long way toward ensuring that lawmakers get “coherent” and “consistent” messages from the department.

Scofield indicated the language in the omnibus was the result of a compromise that allowed HHS some “administrative consolidation” — the department could take steps to “sing off the same page” — but could not consolidate “functions,” such as legislative affairs, under Thompson.

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