For Rep. Tom Graves, his role as chairman of the subcommittee that doles out funds for the legislative branch is an opportunity to put his fiscal conservative principles into practice. “From day one, my focus as a new-breed appropriator was to look for areas where we could save taxpayer dollars," the Georgia Republican, who chairs the House Appropriations Legislative Branch Subcommittee, told CQ Roll Call in a phone interview. "As chairman of a subcommittee, I have that same focus. For me, the focus was how do we save taxpayer dollars and uphold the institution for future generations?”
In other words, it's a balancing act: Cutting funds where possible, while ensuring there are enough funds to keep the Capitol and other legislative branch agencies running.
On April 23, Graves' subcommittee approved the $3.3 billion fiscal 2016 spending bill, keeping the bottom line spending at the same level as 2015. The bill excluded Senate spending, as each chamber defers to the other to set its own spending.
“It wasn’t easy," Graves said of drafting the appropriations bill. "A lot of requests that certainly are warranted; unfortunately, we weren’t able to provide each and every agency what they were requesting.”
But not all agencies' funding remained stagnant. The U.S. Capitol Police received a $21 million boost from its 2015 funding, though that was still below the department's request. Graves said ensuring the Capitol Police Department was properly funded was "clearly, one of my priorities” and funding the department “was critically important.”
Facing a shortfall in the current fiscal year, according to internal memos , the department has suspended all training except handgun and long-gun training until October.
In addition to ensuring safety of the Capitol complex, Graves said another priority has been to overhaul legislative branch funding. He pointed to the provision in the bill that cuts the Open World Leadership Center, which is an exchange program for officials from post-Soviet countries. Graves said the program "was a laudable objective from the 1990s but [it] was meant to be a one-time program." He said these types of Washington programs "always over-live their lives.”
However, the Open World closing drew criticisms from some Democrats.
"I would caution the subcommittee to not hastily cut this initiative," House Appropriations ranking member Nita M. Lowey, D-N.Y., said at last week's markup. "Open World fosters democratic principles and we should be engaging, not dismissing, young Russian leaders who are not part of the Russian government. Additionally at a time of great need, we should not dismantle efforts that reach out to Ukraine and other protagonists."
The typically bipartisan bill also drew criticism from the subcommittee's ranking Democrat.
“We are at the point now where we are starting to cut into bone in some places, and it is unwise,” Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Fla., said on April 23. She warned such cuts, particularly to the Architect of the Capitol, could harm safety around the Capitol complex. The bill allocated nearly $497 million for the AOC, $9 million less than its 2015 funding.
"We have left many important, urgent, time-sensitive life safety projects off the list for funding," Wasserman Schultz said. "And there’s just no question that we put safety in jeopardy when we do that.”
Graves noted to CQ Roll Call that one area of agreement with the ranking member was in regard to conducting oversight over AOC projects.
“Something that was of major importance to myself but also ranking member Wasserman Schultz was to provide oversight and accountability to a lot of the construction projects,” Graves said.
He pointed to language in the legislative branch bill that requires the AOC to submit to the Comptroller General and the Appropriations Committee any schedule or cost changes for projects costing more than $5 million. AOC cannot obligate funds for the project until the changes are submitted and approved.
But last week, Wasserman Schultz said she was concerned about the provision in the bill. "The members should know that those plans are already included in the budget request, and I think that this additional layer is duplication,” she said.
Despite their differences, the Legislative Branch bill is moving forward, with the full Appropriations Committee scheduled to mark it up Thursday.
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