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Nita Lowey, Carrying the Banner for Appropriations

Since being named to the bicameral budget conference committee this fall, New York Democrat Nita M. Lowey has used her position on the 29-member panel to push the concerns of not only Democrats but appropriators from both sides of the aisle.

The top Democrat on the House Appropriations Committee, Lowey has consistently called on top budget negotiators to provide sequester relief and settle on top-line funding levels for fiscal years 2014 and 2015 as soon as possible, echoing the remarks of Appropriations Chairman Harold Rogers of Kentucky. Their goal, Lowey says, is to bring the budget process toward some semblance of normalcy after years of partisan impasse.

Lowey has largely used her first year as the ranking member on the panel — a post she sought and won last December following the retirement of Norm Dicks of Washington — to fight for domestic programs, such as Head Start, the National Institutes of Health and basic scientific research, that are treasured by Democrats. Although she and Rogers have disagreed about funding levels for individual federal agencies, both are veterans of the appropriations world and hold the committee’s work on policymaking in high regard.

They also agree on one of the key factors impacting the budget negotiations: that the sequester level of $967 billion for discretionary spending level that will be implemented Jan. 15, barring a fiscal deal, is unworkable.

In her 13th term in the House, the Bronx-born Lowey has gained a reputation as a tough, partisan defender of traditional Democratic ideals who also works in a collegial manner with GOP members. That’s the classic profile of an appropriator, of course, and it’s what makes her an important emissary for that panel on a conference committee seeking to get beyond years of budget strife.

Lowey discussed her position as both a top appropriator and budget conferee in a recent interview with CQ Roll Call.

Q. Recent reports about the potential for a budget agreement have spanned the gamut from pessimistic to fairly upbeat. What are you anticipating at this point?

A. Because a budget agreement is so essential, especially to the appropriators who are working very, very hard to plan for 2014, I would like to be cautiously optimistic that we can still get a budget deal. … I am always cautiously optimistic that every legislator takes their work seriously, as I do, and understands the mandate and the importance of putting a budget together so we can have a real appropriations process, which Chairman Rogers and I as the ranking member have been advocating for.

We are constantly reviewing the budgets for all 12 bills and making changes, and this is an essential part of the process. So just to continue with continuing resolutions, I think, is inefficient, unproductive and not the responsible way to govern.

Q. Your colleague Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., suggested at one point that the GOP negotiators, led by Rep. Paul D. Ryan, R-Wis., were trying to run out the clock, given that many Republicans said the sequester-level spending was an achievement they want to protect. Do you think that an agreement is foremost on everyone’s mind?

A. It’s very difficult to know what’s in Paul Ryan’s mind. I would think that the responsible members of the Republican caucus would want to have a budget so that we could move forward with the appropriations process. The options are: Come up with a number that the appropriations process for 2014 can move forward, or run out the clock and stick with the sequester number of $967 billion.

The responsible appropriators who sent a letter to the committee understand that you cannot do a responsible budget based on $967 billion. Last year the Transportation-Housing Urban Development bill was pulled off the floor because [GOP leadership] couldn’t get enough Republican votes. The Labor-Health and Human Services-Education bill was cut severely, over 20 percent, and that bill never went public.

So there is no way that with the sequester number the Appropriations Committee can do a thoughtful, responsible job, which our constituents sent us here to do. So I would hope that Paul Ryan and Speaker [John A.] Boehner understand that we really have to get a budget proposal in place by Dec. 13 so that we can do our work.

Q.Some conservative Republicans have said they’re satisfied with the sequester-mandated spending level of $967 billion for fiscal 2014. With that in mind, what incentive do you think they have to make a budget deal if by doing nothing they get what they want?

A. Perhaps members of Congress are not aware of the impact of the sequester. They’re not aware that funding for the National Institutes of Health, for Alzheimer’s, autism, cancer and heart research has been cut and will continue to be cut with the sequester in place. That means jobs, that means the economy.

When I talk to people who are closely connected to some of these wonderful local research centers — not just the National Institutes of Health — they tell me that young people who were considering working in their facility who are graduating from schools are changing careers because they don’t know what the future brings. The uncertainty is what is causing a tremendously negative impact on jobs and the economy. So in my judgment, when we saw what happened last year and you couldn’t pass a bill that finances the National Institutes of Health, the education programs that are so critical to our young kids and for jobs and the economy, it’s really irresponsible.

We were sent here to do our work, and we should be doing our work. We’ve already voted for $2.5 trillion in deficit reduction over the next 10 years, so we’ve already done that and for us to slash these critical programs that have a direct impact on our quality of life, on jobs and the economy does not make sense to me.

Q.Democrats have to date rejected sequester flexibility proposals put forward by Republicans in the hopes of getting rid of the automatic spending cuts entirely. But if there is no budget agreement and discretionary spending shrinks to $967 billion, do you think Democrats would be willing to negotiate on sequester flexibility?

A. Democrats are certainly willing to negotiate … but if you don’t have a partner that is going to understand that you must get rid of the sequester for two years and that it has to be somewhere between $1.058 trillion and $967 billion, then you can’t make any progress. But you can’t function at $967 billion.

Q. Several Republicans on the House Appropriations Committee have gone on the record saying that a $967 billion top line with $498 billion for defense programs is unacceptable. Do you think that indicates a fissure between GOP appropriators and leadership?

A. It’s clear that the Democrats are united. … To the best of my knowledge, the majority of the Republican caucus would like to work with Chairman Rogers to move this process forward because they know it’s in their interest. They have transportation challenges in their districts, education challenges, health care challenges, so I would like to see the Republican members of the Appropriations Committee convince the majority of their caucus and their leadership to move this process forward by Dec. 13.

Q. Democrats and Republican appropriators alike have talked about the need to return to so-called regular order. Some have attributed the erosion of the process to the earmarks moratorium. Do you agree with that assessment, and do you ever expect a return of the earmark?

A. Legislative-directed investments have always had a lot of support in the Congress because who knows a district better than a member of Congress? Before we dispensed with the legislative-directed investments, there was a process in place when the Democrats were in charge, which would carefully evaluate every request to make sure that it meets the goals that the members have set for earmarks.

I would hope that working together with the Republicans, we can bring back legislative-directed investments.

Q. Democratic and Republican appropriators have talked about the need to return to this so-called regular order. Do you think that can be achieved in this era of CRs? If so, how can we get the committee back on track?

A. Well, I would like to see regular order and I know the Democrats on the Appropriations Committee and all my colleagues would like to see regular order. Doing continuing resolutions, where you’re not adjusting to the changing needs of the country, where you don’t have the opportunity to get rid of wasteful programs and replace them with investments that can really make a difference in transportation or health care or the environment, there are a whole range of issues that are addressed by our 12 appropriations bills.

I know Chairman Rogers and I and all members of [Appropriations] and many of our colleagues would like to return to regular order and I do hope that we don’t have a shutdown, that we can move this process forward and be proud of a work product that gets rid of the sequester and has a number in the budget that we can deal with adequately and write into bills.

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