Appropriations in Line of Fire

House’s Fiscal ’04 Bills Caught in Escalating Partisan Battle

Posted December 12, 2003 at 5:48pm

When the House completed passage of the contentious omnibus spending bill last week, it made a fitting end to what both Republicans and Democrats agreed was an unusually tense and partisan appropriations process.

While the annual rite of passing the 13 spending bills always has its share of controversies, 2003 was particularly acrimonious, as both parties’ House leaders decided to take a harder line than in years past.

Those attitudes seeped down from the top to affect interparty relations on the Appropriations Committee, where Democrats voted in large numbers against two key spending bills and Republicans in turn moved to strip Democratic projects from those measures.

“There has begun to raise its head a partisan tone at the full committee and it has been felt at the subcommittee level,” said Rep. Ray LaHood (R-Ill.), an appropriator.

LaHood attributed some of the Democrats’ complaints to the fact that the party is “desperate to win the majority back.”

But he also criticized the practice of stripping projects from Members who don’t support spending bills, arguing that legislative items should be funded based on their merits rather than their sponsors.

“I think it’s unacceptable to link votes with [bill] contents,” LaHood said.

Democratic appropriators also have noticed a breakdown in the comity of the committee, attributing the heightened partisanship to a trend throughout the GOP-controlled Congress. They point to a 108th Congress marked by a Republican leadership cutting Democrats out from their participation on conference committees, to House rules, to floor activity.

Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), a longtime appropriator, said, “Partisanship has been escalating for the 20-plus years that I’ve been here.”

Hoyer said the problem is not the chairman, saying that Rep. Bill Young (R-Fla.) is “fair, straightforward and as honest a chairman as there is in Congress.” Rather, he attributes the trend to the “hard-line elements” of the Republican Conference, citing as a specific example a move earlier this year to take away GOP appropriators’ power to select their own subcommittee chairmen.

“It certainly hasn’t spoiled my relationship with Bill Young and other Members, but it is undermining what used to be a very positive relationship between Members of the committee.”

But Republicans charge that Democrats were the first to really inject a tone of partisanship into the process this year, particularly on the Labor, Health and Human Services and Education bill. Not a single Democrat voted in favor of that measure on the floor, while 198 voted no.

Democratic appropriators say any partisan action they have taken this year has simply been a response to Republican partisan attempts to strip funding for key programs. House Democrats acknowledge they have opposed appropriations bills in larger numbers than in the past, most specifically Labor-HHS.

Members said that bill is the most egregious example of Republicans pulling the plug on promised funding — including $8 billion for the “No Child Left Behind” education program.

“It shouldn’t be a surprise to anybody that more and more Democrats said, ‘No, that’s wrong,’” said David Helfert, spokesman for the committee’s minority staff. “That’s what their vote was.”

Republicans retorted by pulling Democratic earmarks in the Labor spending measure, and they later did the same thing on the measure funding Veterans Affairs, Housing and Urban Development and independent agencies.

Helfert said Republicans have cut some $6 billion in veterans’ services funding, which also has angered Democrats. Some 50 Democrats opposed the VA-HUD bill on House passage, but just two appropriators — ranking member David Obey (D-Wis.) and Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. (D-Ill.) — were among the no votes.

Helfert said appropriators are even seeing more politics from the White House during the 108th, counting 16 veto threats issued on spending bills.

“It’s about winning at all costs, at any cost,” he said.

Some committee Republicans agreed that the tone had worsened, but they argued that there was plenty of blame to go around.

“That proliferation [of partisanship] is not good for the institution,” said Rep. Zach Wamp (R-Tenn.), a committee member.

He added that he felt that there was “culpability” and “more empty rhetoric” emanating this year from both sides of the aisle.

“Anyone on our side who’s being punitive is also not being fair,” Wamp said.

Republicans have also taken pains to point out that they did not invent the practice of stripping earmarks from lawmakers who refuse to support spending bills.

“This is a tactic we learned from the Democrats” when they were in the majority, said a GOP Appropriations aide.

The aide acknowledged that some Republican Members and staffers on the committee were frustrated by their own leadership’s strategy in moving the spending bills. House GOP leaders have shown little appetite for compromise not only with Democrats but also with their Republican counterparts in the Senate.

“One of the problems this year is that the House leadership is still acting like [Minority Leader Tom] Daschle [D-S.D.] is in charge in the Senate,” said the Appropriations aide. “While the Senate is frustrating, they’re still our boys.”

Rep. David Price (D-N.C.) said while it isn’t uncommon for partisanship to rear its head near the end of the Congressional session, appropriators usually come together to complete their work. But unlike in previous years, he said, appropriations conference reports aren’t reflecting what Democrats and Republicans put together in subcommittee.

“That’s what’s different,” he said.

Price said even when then-Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) led the House, appropriators worked hand in hand. This leadership, he said, has taken a “rule or ruin approach” to the House that has forced appropriators to be more partisan.

“There has [traditionally] been an even-handedness with the appropriations process,” he said. “We can’t afford to lose that. Once that slips away it will be very hard to retrieve.”

Rep. Chaka Fattah (D-Pa.) said he has continued to have positive interaction with GOP appropriators on the subcommittee level, but he has definitely seen a decline in bipartisanship on the full panel.

“In the bigger picture, there has been more agitation and an edge to the committee of the whole and on other subcommittees,” he said.

In part, however, Fattah attributes the rancor to tough fiscal times, a looming 2004 election and the emotions revolving around “war and peace.”

“Appropriations is always less partisan than the rest of Congress,” said Helfert. “That is sadly changing.”