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Cardinals Targeting Earmarks

With House and Senate leaders now in apparent agreement on a tight fiscal 2005 budget resolution, House Appropriations Chairman Bill Young (R-Fla.) has instructed his cardinals and subcommittee clerks to keep Member projects in their bills to a minimum.

While appropriators and leaders vow to crack down on earmarks every year, often with little success, the unique demands of the war in Iraq and political pressure to restrain the deficit mean that this spending season could actually be as austere as advertised.

The budget agreement essentially freezes the levels of all nondefense and homeland security related spending, and Young wants projects kept at or below fiscal 2004 levels despite the fact that this is an election year and lawmakers are eager to bring bacon home to their districts.

Before Republicans’ retreat in January to discuss the budget, the Appropriations Committee put out a memo with an early warning that “Members should have very low expectations for Congressional project funding especially in an election year.”

Young reiterated that message in a meeting with his cardinals last week, where he handed out tentative subcommittee allocations and stressed the importance of setting a high bar for Member projects.

In order to prevent pileups of dissatisfied lawmakers later in the year, cardinals are attempting to give their subcommittee members an early warning.

“We’ve already put that word out there,” said Rep. Joe Knollenberg (R-Mich.), chairman of the subcommittee on military construction. “We’re going to have to bring the vise down.”

Yet, even though lawmakers have known for months that this year’s budget would be tight, that has not stopped them from submitting billions of dollars in requests to the Appropriations panel.

For example, the overall size of the fiscal 2005 Transportation, Treasury and independent agencies bill is expected to be $25-28 billion, and yet it has already attracted $21 billion worth of Member requests. And the military construction measure, which will likely be in the neighborhood of $9.5 billion, has drawn $7 billion in requests.

Even in a surplus year, only a fraction of those requests would end up making it into the final bills, and Young wants even fewer to make it into law this year.

While every cardinal will face pressure this year to keep spending down, some of the bills will be trickier than others.

On the Commerce, Justice, State and the judiciary measure, the overall size of the bill will have to be about the same as last year’s, even though it contains several specific items — including the FBI and embassy security — that are slated for significant budget increases.

Those requirements will make it that much harder to shoehorn Member projects in.

“It’s going to be very, very difficult,” said Rep. Frank Wolf (R-Va.), chairman of the CJS subcommittee. “There will just not be as much money.”

The military construction bill, meanwhile, is attracting an especially large number of earmark requests this year because another round of base closings is looming.

Though efforts are under way in both the House and Senate to postpone the next set of closures, many lawmakers will tell their constituents that if they can get money for repairs or improvements on bases in their districts then the military will be less likely to shut them down.

“[That argument] sells with the chambers of commerce in Members’ hometowns,” Knollenberg said.

One complicating factor in Young’s efforts to minimize earmarks is the Senate’s likely unwillingness to be similarly strict, meaning that the two chambers could go to conference with Senators having far more projects than their House counterparts.

If that occurs, several cardinals said, they will make sure during conference negotiations to bring the House earmark total up to the same level as the Senate.

In the meantime, lawmakers will have to make some tough choices.

“A lot of Members are prioritizing and saying, ‘If I can only get one [project], this is the one I really want,’” Young said.

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