Lawmakers Offer Appropriations Directions, but Don’t Call Them Earmarks

Posted September 6, 2013 at 1:31pm

Appropriators who have been hamstrung by a moratorium on earmarks in Congress still have tools they can use to favor particular programs, and they are working against strong headwinds to make sure they can continue to use them this year.

Although lawmakers can no longer steer funds directly to specific companies or locations, appropriators still carry important influence in deciding which federal programs can be sheltered from cuts or even get a rare increase in an era of austere budgets. They also can attach to their bills orders to nudge agencies to pay more attention to specific programs that benefit appropriators’ constituents or pet causes.

The hitch is that such legislative tactics usually are available to appropriators only when they get new annual spending bills enacted. That’s proved a daunting task in recent years.

Just five new bills were included in the fiscal 2013 appropriations package (PL 113-6), with a long-term continuing resolution covering the seven unfinished annual spending bills. Appropriators will be challenged to do even this well again in a fiscal 2014 package, which may come in November if a larger agreement on the debt limit resolves a stalemate on an annual spending cap.

That’s why members of the minority party in both chambers have been helping write the fiscal 2014 bills, even as Democrats and Republicans remain deeply divided over the overall level of discretionary spending and the budget resolutions that set the broader spending parameters for appropriations bills.

Chaka Fattah of Pennsylvania, the ranking Democrat on the House Commerce-Justice-Science Appropriations Subcommittee, said he hopes his panel’s measure (HR 2787) is included in a fiscal 2014 package, although he opposes the overall spending cap and even the spending level for his panel’s bill. Fattah means to secure $13.9 million for work done in connection with the White House’s new Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies initiative. The White House has credited Fattah with helping create this new initiative, which seeks to aid in the fight against conditions such as Alzheimer’s disease.

For Fattah, aiding neuroscience required cooperating on the House’s Commerce-Justice-Science bill, even while maintaining that the $47.4 billion bill does not do enough to stave off the impact of sequester cutbacks to discretionary spending.

“The arithmetic is different than what I would have arrived at,” Fattah said of the $91 billion cap between House and Senate plans for federal operating expenses in the fiscal year starting Oct. 1. “But it’s very important that we move this bill from a policy standpoint.”

Fattah expects Democrats to prevail in a fight over the sequester ordered by the 2011 Budget Control Act (PL 112-25) and move the cap from the House-approved $967 billion to the original $1.058 trillion.

In the Senate, Richard C. Shelby of Alabama, the ranking Republican on the Appropriations Committee, hasn’t let his disagreement with that chamber’s higher spending cap stop him from putting his stamp on some of the committee’s work. He wants to use the Commerce-Justice-Science bill (S 1392) to compel the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to look at more scientific data on the red snapper population in hopes of getting the agency to ease its restriction on hauls of the fish.

Mark S. Kirk, R-Ill., also opposes the cap used by Senate Appropriations Chairwoman Barbara A. Mikulski, D-Md., but he has said he wants to see a new Commerce-Justice-Science law enacted for fiscal 2014.

To Kirk, the measure would serve as a kind of “federal anti-gangs bill,” which he sees as a tribute to Chicago teenager Hadiya Pendleton, who was slain shortly after performing at President Barack Obama’s second inauguration. In addition to an almost $20 million bump for Justice Department efforts to fight gangs, Kirk inserted in the report a direction that DOJ must consider new strategies to combat gangs that may have a presence in several cities.

“Dangerous drug gangs are responsible for some of the most heinous criminal acts in America, including gun trafficking, drug running and sex trafficking,” Kirk said. “That is why I fought for and remain focused on securing additional federal resources to combat these gangs of national significance that are stymieing economic development, destroying our communities and tearing families apart through acts of senseless violence.”

Causes championed by appropriators through the spending bills include the clearly parochial as well as the highly personal, but some also focus on nitty-gritty steps that lawmakers believe can make federal agencies run more efficiently. They also do not fit comfortably on either side of Capitol Hill’s partisan dividers.

In the Senate, Jerry Moran, R-Kan., has fiercely defended the $404 million provided in his chamber’s Homeland Security bill for a new lab in Kansas to research fatal animal diseases. The project has the backing of the Obama administration but has drawn sharp criticism from some Democrats, including Jon Tester of Montana. The Kansas lab earlier had a chief GOP defender in then-appropriator and now Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback.

In the House, Tom Rooney, R-Fla., fought to get more funds directed through the fiscal 2014 Agriculture appropriations bill (HR 2410) to fighting diseases that are attacking citrus crops, including those that affect farms in his district. Nita M. Lowey of New York, the ranking Democrat on House Appropriations, was pleased to keep $22 million for the Securing the Cities program for preventing nuclear or radiological attack in the Homeland Security measure (HR 2217).

Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Fla., a breast-cancer survivor, added a direction to the Pentagon to the Defense bill (HR 2397) that it should step up its research on how breast cancer spreads, with an aim of extending lives.

The Defense and Homeland Security measures are among the more likely spending bills that may pass if separate bills are packaged along with a continuing resolution, so members may have their best hopes of getting targeted provisions passed into law.

Henry Cuellar, D-Texas, is the author of the 2010 overhaul of the standards used to judge how well federal programs deliver services, the Government Performance and Results Modernization Act (PL 111-352). He said he intends to use fiscal 2014 appropriations to compel the Department of Homeland Security to devise better metrics for measuring its performance. Cuellar had an order included in the report for the Homeland Security bill directing the department to work with the Government Accountability Office on new metrics, and he said he is working to ensure that it accompanies the final fiscal 2014 funding bill.

Homeland Security is one of four of the 12 fiscal 2014 bills that have passed the full House and are teed up to be included in a final package. The others are Defense, Energy-Water (HR 2609) and Military Construction-VA (HR 2216). House Appropriations Chairman Harold Rogers, R-Ky., also spared both the Agriculture and Commerce-Justice-Science bills from the deep double-digit spending cuts that he proposed on other domestic fiscal 2014 measures, a strategy that may help those bills be included in the final package.

But there’s little expectation of seeing a Labor-HHS-Education or Interior-Environment bill completed.

The programs funded by these bills are among the most likely to be funded through a long-term CR for fiscal 2014, as they have been for fiscal 2013, leaving lawmakers little chance to advance any special directions.