Use of Appropriations ‘Polling’ Troubles Critics

Posted September 17, 2004 at 5:57pm

During this year’s appropriations season, Senate Appropriations Chairman Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) has expanded a controversial practice of restricting public access to some spending bills to keep lobbyists and other Members of Congress from requesting changes.

By “polling” members of the panel’s subcommittees rather than holding open subcommittee markups of each of the 13 appropriations bills, Senate appropriators have been able to send eight bills to the full committee without publicly revealing any details of what’s in the multibillion-dollar bills.

Polling, which until recently has been used sparingly and in limited circumstances, entails contacting each member of the subcommittee, including Democrats, by phone or other means and asking them to approve sending a bill to the full committee. Since no rules cover polling, it is unclear whether one Member’s objection could force a subcommittee markup.

Once a subcommittee has been successfully polled, no public notice is given of the action, a Senate Appropriations spokeswoman said.

Critics of polling, including taxpayer watchdog groups and lobbyists, said the practice creates an extra layer of secrecy around large spending measures and makes it significantly harder for the public to know how their tax dollars are being spent. Under Stevens, details of the legislation are typically not revealed publicly until after passage by the full committee.

“It’s almost a bunker mentality now,” said David Williams of Citizens Against Government Waste. “This is taxpayer money, and we should be able to see what’s going on.”

Lobbyists, who generally view the scheduling of a subcommittee markup as a way to find out if provisions they’ve asked for have been included in the bill, are also upset by the practice.

“It is unprecedented,” one Democratic-leaning lobbyist said of Stevens’ openness to polling. “It’s a slippery slope when you start to close the doors and cut off the public access.”

But Stevens angrily defends the practice.

“That’s baloney!” Stevens said. “It has nothing to do with [secrecy]. … There’s no reason to unveil it until it’s ready to be voted on.”

He added, “We’re not doing anything different than we’ve done every year. The subcommittee chairmen and ranking members decide whether they need a meeting in order to bring the bill to full committee. If they reach an agreement, they bring it to full committee without a subcommittee meeting.”

The use of polling has varied year by year, but polling has become increasingly common over the past three appropriations cycles.

Last year, five subcommittees used polling. In 2002, under Democratic Chairman Robert Byrd (W.Va.), only two subcommittees polled their members. But this year, polling was used for eight appropriations bills.

Spending levels for the departments of Commerce, Justice, State; Interior; and Labor, Health and Human Services and Education were not revealed until after the full committee approved their respective bills last week. The Interior Department bill was kept secret for nearly three months this summer after subcommittee polling on June 23.

Other bills that underwent polling were District of Columbia; foreign operations; legislative branch; military construction; and Veterans Affairs-Housing and Urban Development.

However, Senate appropriators almost never hold subcommittee markups for the D.C. and Legislative Branch bills.

While seven subcommittees used polling in 2001, that was largely because of time pressures having to do with the midyear change of Senate leadership from Republican to Democrat and because of the impact of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, a Democratic Appropriations aide said.

In both 1999 and 2000, only three bills were subject to polling. In 1998, five Senate subcommittees used polling, while only three used the practice in 1997.

It has been Stevens’ practice to unveil the legislative language of spending measures only after the full committee’s mark has been formally introduced as a bill — a practice that can take more than a day after full committee approval, according to the Appropriations spokeswoman.

Though it’s often difficult for the media to obtain legislative language at subcommittee markups in both the House and Senate, key details of spending projects are readily available in open sessions.

The House Appropriations Committee rarely skips subcommittee markups. This year, all 13 bills were vetted in public.

“Markups are a pain, but democracy ain’t easy,” said one House Appropriations aide. “For the appearance of propriety, it seems you’d want to have as much sunlight on the process as possible.”

Two senior Senate GOP aides said Stevens has been driving the increased use of subcommittee polling, because he does not want lobbyists and Members to inundate him with additional spending requests.

In fact, Stevens has not been shy about saying that himself. Back in June, when Stevens was trying to figure out when to bring the Defense appropriations bill to the floor, he said the measure needed to pass quickly.

“You never leave a defense bill hanging out there,” Stevens told reporters at the time. “K Street would eat me alive.”

Sen. Pete Domenici (R-N.M.), chairman of the Appropriations subcommittee on Energy and water, explained why it’s so difficult for appropriators once bills have been released to the public.

“From the standpoint of what happens once you’ve got an appropriations bill in its totality exposed, you can’t imagine from whence things come. They don’t just come from [the lobbyists], but they come from the Senators, from constituents. I mean, everybody has something to fix, add to, or change,” said Domenici.

He added, “You’re walking on the [Senate] floor, and they’re stuffing [requests] in your pockets — ‘Don’t forget me,’ you know. I think that’s the reality that polling tries to circumvent.”

But Williams sees a different reason for keeping the bills away from prying eyes: groups like Citizens Against Government Waste, which routinely criticizes Stevens’ bills for containing too much “pork-barrel” spending.

“I think he doesn’t want groups like ours and the media to get a hold of these tidbits,” said Williams. “I don’t think Ted Stevens ever met a lobbyist he didn’t like.”

Many members of the Appropriations panel contend that polling speeds up consideration of bills during the run-up to Sept. 30, the statutory deadline for passing new spending bills.

“Under the circumstances, where we’ve been so delayed or lax — whichever you want to say — we’re trying to get things done,” said Byrd, the ranking member on Senate Appropriations. “So I’m not exercised about it, but it’s better to avoid it when you can.”

But Williams said public access should not be the victim of an appropriations schedule gone awry. “Who’s fault is it that they’re behind schedule? They created this situation,” he said.

In the meantime, Senate Minority Whip Harry Reid (D-Nev.) suggested that Democrats are in a tight spot, because they don’t want to be accused of blocking must-pass spending bills in a critical election year by objecting to polling.

“We’re not going to be in the process of objecting to appropriations bills moving along,” said Reid, who added that Democrats have ample opportunity to amend the bills during full committee consideration.

Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.), the ranking member of the Interior subcommittee, acknowledged that the process is “a disadvantage in terms of public knowledge.” In addition, “the full committee didn’t move to consider it as soon as I’d expected,” Dorgan said.

Indeed, Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) said that the practice should probably not be so widely used, even though “few of those subcommittee markups turn out to be controversial.”

“It avoids the scheduling of a meeting and the open presentation of [the bill], but it doesn’t save any time,” Durbin said.