Does Rearranging Appropriations Panels Make Any Sense?

Posted January 26, 2005 at 2:56pm

Last fall, 35 graduate students at Georgetown University participated in an exercise on ways to cut back excess federal spending. The participants were from all parts of the country and represented a full spectrum of political viewpoints. They were divided into five groups, and each group had to reach a consensus on how to scale back government outlays.

While the groups produced a wide array of possible budget cuts, the one reduction they all agreed on was to eliminate the president’s $1 billion Moon-Mars Initiative.

The ease with which this diverse group of students agreed to scale back the Mars effort when they had difficulty agreeing on other cuts suggests how big a problem House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas) faces in securing funds for the Mars program. DeLay’s South Texas district borders NASA’s Johnson Space Center, the largest single employer in the state of Texas.

The Majority Leader advertises himself as a no-holds-barred fiscal conservative, and he likes to lecture his fellow Republicans about the necessity of reducing the size of government. But this past year, he used more political capital protecting what some might label excessive spending than he did on holding down the deficit.

DeLay overruled a decision by the House Appropriations Committee to scale back the Moon-Mars Initiative by informing the subcommittee chairman, Rep. Jim Walsh (R-N.Y.), that he would prevent the bill from being scheduled for consideration until the Mars spending was restored. Ultimately, the leader forced the conferees on the omnibus appropriation bill to fund NASA at the president’s full request.

But it now appears that the 2006 budget will be significantly more austere than the spending levels Congress just enacted for the current year, and it is apparent that DeLay recognizes that even his clout may not be enough to save the initiative and the funding he hopes to steer toward the Johnson Space Center.

It’s not just that the initiative lacks support from both scientists and lawmakers, it’s also that it’s funded in an appropriations bill in which the scramble for federal dollars is particularly intense. The Veterans’ Affairs, Housing and Urban Development, and independent agencies appropriation provides funding not only for a large share of the government’s efforts in science, but also for a variety of other programs, including veterans’ medical programs. The costs of those programs are growing rapidly, and because Members of Congress in both parties place a high priority on meeting veterans’ health needs, all nonveteran programs in the bill are being squeezed.

Anticipating the problem he will likely face — that is, repeatedly trying to overcome support for veterans in order to direct more money to the space center — DeLay put forth a proposal to realign subcommittee jurisdictions. His timing was perfect. He floated the proposal only weeks before the Republican Steering Committee — a group in which DeLay controls considerably more votes than his own — was to select a new chairman of the full Appropriations Committee. One can only presume that DeLay’s timing gave him the opportunity to discuss subcommittee jurisdictions at the same time he was measuring the qualifications of the competing candidates for chairman.

The details of the DeLay proposal have not been made fully public, but press accounts suggest that DeLay feels the current structure is antiquated and unreflective of Republican priorities. Reports of a presentation he made before the Republican leadership claim he argued that the existing jurisdictions were “designed by Democrats to fund Democratic priorities.” A Republican leadership aide explained to one reporter, “It makes a difference in whether we have a Congress that’s organized to fund the New Deal or organized in a way to fund a conservative world view.”

Actually, the current subcommittee alignment dates back to the era when conservative Democrats like Rep. Clarence Cannon of Missouri and even more conservative Republicans like Rep. John Taber of New York ran the committee in a spirit of bipartisanship so seamless that the committee’s clerk and staff director did not change positions when majorities in the House changed. The committee’s power elite was anything but supportive of the New Deal, and presidents from Franklin Delano Roosevelt to Lyndon Johnson were constantly frustrated by the conservatism and intransigence of the appropriators.

Realigning subcommittee jurisdictions would be painful and time-consuming. Subcommittee chairmen and members would have to negotiate complex changes in jurisdiction — and if the Senate does not agree to the exact changes in alignment, the result will be enormous chaos in the legislative process. All of this is certain to provide the committee with a slow start as it responds to the White House’s request for another record-breaking supplemental, followed by a very difficult year for the regular bills.

Before the Appropriations Committee puts its schedule at risk for yet another budget cycle, it should make one simple determination. Could the Moon-Mars Initiative withstand a vote on the House floor to transfer Mars money to any reasonably popular activity? If the answer is no — and the exercise conducted by the students at Georgetown suggest that that is a distinct possibility — it won’t matter what the Appropriations Committee does on jurisdictional realignment, since the Moon-Mars Initiative will simply provide a source of funding for other more popular programs within that jurisdiction.

Scott Lilly is a former clerk and staff director of the House Appropriations Committee and is now a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress.