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Lobbyists Kick Into Gear to Save Array of Programs

Lobbyists put on their reading glasses Monday as they skimmed President Bush’s budget proposal and tried to figure out how hard it knocks their interests.

For many, the dense and lengthy document offered no easy answers.

“Right now, everybody’s trying to analyze what we’ve got and get the information out,” said H. Stewart Van Scoyoc, president of lobbying firm Van Scoyoc Associates.

But plenty of lobbyists found what appeared to be bad news in a proposal that asks Congress to cut or eliminate spending on 150 programs. They promised to pull out every weapon in their arsenal to save targeted programs and find protectors among Members of Congress.

“The key is finding out what Members are supportive of what programs,” said Randall Moody, the National Education Association’s federal policy and politics manager.

While educational programs accounted for about a third of those targeted for reduction or elimination in the president’s proposal, Moody said that his group, along with other leading advocates for education, would focus on getting Congress to fully fund federal mandates such as the No Child Left Behind Act.

The president proposed spending $24.8 billion on that program — a 1.3 percent increase over last year but $12 billion short of what he had promised to spend, education lobbyists say.

Such education groups as the American Federation of Teachers and the American Association of School Administrators said they would join the NEA in activating their considerable grass-roots networks to pressure Members of Congress to increase spending levels.

As it turns out, Members may be lobbying them right back, said one education lobbyist.

Paul Houston, who heads the AASA, said he expects Members to seek his group’s support for their favorite programs.

“It cuts both ways,” he said. “They’re very aware of how important we can be.”

He said those programs — such as vocational education grants or the Upward Bound program for inner city youths, both targeted in the proposed budget — are less endangered than they seem because they enjoy the support of key Members.

“They’ve gored a lot of baby oxes with this,” he said. “All these programs have champions.”

Education lobbyists focused on those programs, however, are not taking their permanence for granted.

For example, the president in his last two budget proposals has recommended cutting federal funding of vocational education programs. Congress twice rejected the proposals, but this year, the president has asked Members to stop funding the programs altogether.

Lobbyists who work for associations that promote vocational education said they would ask their memberships to contact Members of Congress and ensure that support on the Hill doesn’t falter.

Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.), the ranking member of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, expressed doubt that it would.

“I think Members of Congress and the Senate are hearing what I’m hearing back home in Massachusetts, and that’s the importance of investing in education,” he said in a conference call with reporters. “In a global economy that’s going to require higher skills, you’re eliminating vocational programs? I mean, hello?”

Meanwhile, not even the defense sector — the biggest area of spending for the federal government, especially in the current time of war — is not immune from cuts. The president’s budget seeks to trim back funding for a next-generation fighter plane and calls for retiring one of the nation’s aircraft carriers.

“If you’re cutting the future military to pay for this war now, one day this war is going to end and you need to be prepared for the next wars,” says one defense lobbyist.

Rick Weidman, director of government relations for the Vietnam Veterans of America, said this effort will force his group to better organize its members and mobilize its grass roots to make sure Members feel the pressure back home to increase veterans’ benefits.

“We need to do what we do much better, particularly at the state and local level,” he said. “We’re going to be more proactive with the press, local radio. If Members are being slam-dunked by the leadership of Congress and the White House to spend less on veterans, even though they don’t think it is right, we have to do a much better job with the veterans in their districts.”

The farmers’ lobby also wants to make sure that the president’s budget does not override the 2002 Farm bill.

“Our producers have made long-term financial commitments” based on the 2002 law, said Jon Doggett, vice president of public policy for the National Corn Growers Association. “We have farmers in town this week, and they are not missing an opportunity to express their concerns.”

Tom Buis, vice president of government relations for the National Farmers Union agrees. “The agriculture community is united, and the agriculture community is pretty powerful when they’re united.”

Local interests have their own battle to wage. A coalition of groups that represent the nation’s cities, counties and other local entities is gearing up for an all-out fight to preserve community development block grants, which are slashed dramatically in the president’s budget.

“It’s just outrageous that they are cutting city programs to balance the budget,” said Don Plusquellic, the mayor of Akron, Ohio, who also serves as president of the U.S. Conference of Mayors. Plusquellic, in an interview Monday while en route to Washington, said that he is working on organizing his counterparts in government and social-service agencies urging them to contact Congress.

“What happens is, some bureaucrat in Washington, some bean counters come through and say, ‘Look at this wasteful program.’ But it’s rebuilding our neighborhoods.”

The Washington Linkage Group specializes in representing cities and counties, and the firm’s Colin Wellenkamp says that clients such Philadelphia, Baltimore and the National Conference of Black Mayors also plan to fight hard to restore the community development block grants.

Wellenkamp said cities and counties aren’t the only entities that benefit from the community development grants: “Homeowners associations, banks, homebuilders all benefit from CDBG monies. The city of Philadelphia is actually a city on the cutting edge of CDBG advocacy. We’ve been working with them on a plan for several months. We saw some things coming down the road.”

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