House Appropriations Chairman Hal Rogers (right) and ranking member Norm Dicks (left) have been trying to make sure the Surveys and Investigations work group continues to provide the committee with oversight information on a bipartisan basis.
If "you cut 20 contract staff ... it probably means you're not staying even," said Scott Lilly, a former top Appropriations aide who is now a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress.
Lilly, who was chief of staff to former Appropriations Chairman David Obey (D-Wis.) as well as a clerk and staff director on the Appropriations Committee, argued that "if your agenda is to cut waste out of the federal government ... failing to increase the overall effort is a step in the wrong direction."
Those investigations and surveys are not only at the heart of what S&I does but are also central to the work of the committee in general, according to House aides.
While committee and subcommittee staff typically craft appropriations bills on the top level, S&I to a large degree provides the background information for them to do their actual work. Investigators identify specific projects, programs and spending items in a given agency or department's budget.
Following a detailed review of the budget and program, they will provide reports to subcommittee staff and members on their findings that often form the basis of recommended areas to reduce spending, protect spending levels or provide an increase.
According to aides, the highly technical nature of the work generally makes S&I intensely nonpartisan, and it is common for investigators to remain with the team after a switch in control of the committee.
Additionally, the committee has generally taken steps to further reduce the chances of partisanship seeping into the process by requiring any survey or investigation that is conducted to be approved on a bipartisan basis by Rogers, Dicks and their lieutenants.
Part of the concern for Lilly and others is the fact that unlike authorizing committees — which typically conduct prominent but often partisan-minded oversight investigations — the Appropriations Committee has the power to implement real, meaningful reforms.
After all, Rogers and Dicks control the purse strings, and while political attacks hurt, budget rescissions can hurt federal bureaucrats even more.
"Appropriations has the hammer ... but the authorizers, they really have the people" to conduct comprehensive investigations, Lilly said.
The cuts in investigators also mean that "a lot of the decisions are misinformed," Lilly said. For instance, he points to last winter's continuing resolution in which funding was reduced for the Food and Drug Administration's construction budget. With the FDA moving into a new headquarters, the reductions have meant significant delays in completing work, which has left a key division of the agency in charge of approving biologically derived drugs stranded in temporary work space.
A House GOP aide, however, dismissed Lilly's concerns, arguing that the committee understood the FDA's funding needs "and made the decision to cut the project anyway." Arguing that even if S&I had recommended maintaining funding, it would likely not have had an impact on the committee's decision-making because "pretty much the only thing that needs to be funded in this project is parking lots — which probably won't be needed right away anyway."
Hing also downplayed those concerns, arguing that while the number of investigators has been reduced because of cuts to the contractor budget, Rogers has boosted S&I's ability to more carefully target its work by relying on detailees from the agencies.