Bills Scold Executive Branch

Posted May 24, 2005 at 6:47pm

Two recent appropriations bills passed by the Republican-controlled House include language scolding the Bush administration for its lack of responsiveness to repeated Congressional requests for information — an unusual sign of tension within the typically united Republican ranks.

In both the Homeland Security and energy and water appropriations measures, Members sought to send a message that willful avoidance of Congress’ oversight function carries penalties for the administration, no matter who holds the White House.

“It hurts me to cut or withhold funds for an agency that desperately needs the money, but I don’t know what else we can do,” said Kentucky Rep. Hal Rogers (R), chairman of the Appropriations subcommittee on Homeland Security. “This is tough love.”

The Homeland Security bill, which passed the House on May 18, cut more than $485 million in funding due to a lack of information on a variety of programs requested by Congress.

The bill essentially ransomed another $310 million until the Homeland Security Department begins development on, among other things, a plan to install explosive detection devices in all U.S. airports.

Valerie Smith, a spokeswoman for the department, said that “we continue to work as quickly as possible to meet the requirements.”

“We agree they are necessary in our partnership together,” she added.

The House appropriations bill on energy and water, passed Tuesday by a 416-13 vote, took the Army Corps of Engineers to task for moving money between projects without informing Congress.

Animosity between Congressional Republicans and the Bush White House is not unprecedented, but it is atypical. The tension level could well rise over the next few weeks as Bush weighs two potential vetoes, which would be his first ever.

The House was poised to pass a bill Tuesday that would allow federal funding for embryonic stem-cell research — a move the president reiterated his opposition to on Tuesday.

In addition, the Senate has approved a highway bill with a price tag of $295 billion — $11 billion more than both the House plan and the maximum that Bush has said he’ll sign. The two chambers will attempt to hash out their funding differences in a yet-to-be-convened conference committee.

Those potential fights aside, the decision to formalize complaints within the report accompanying the overall bills is unusual and a sign of the level of discontent on Congress’ behalf toward the bureaucratic build-up in several agencies.

Rogers said he has received “nothing but encouragement” from the House leadership in his effort to make Homeland Security more accountable. And, the Office of Management and Budget has privately expressed approval for Congress’ actions. Rogers added that in more than two decades as an appropriator, he has never run into an agency so tight-lipped about its funding requests.

“It is a puzzle,” he said. “I can’t figure out their reasoning.”

In a section titled “Interaction with Congress” the Appropriations subcommittee on Homeland Security report notes that “the Committee continues to be frustrated by the Department’s inability to respond quickly, or at all, to items of Congressional interest or direction.”

It continues: “While the Committee recognizes that there were growing pains when the Department was first formed and it might be unclear which agency should respond to an inquiry, the Department is now over two years old. Responsiveness should no longer be a challenge.”

Specifically mentioned in the report is the department’s failure to provide a plan to reopen Washington Reagan National Airport to charter and business flights, which have been prohibited since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

Rep. Martin Sabo (D-Minn.), the ranking member on the Homeland Security subcommittee, said that the harsh language of the report was the result of several years of “troublesome” interaction between the executive and legislative branches.

“The frustration has been ongoing,” Sabo said. “The aim is to make [the department] more responsive.”

Smith, the Homeland Security Department spokeswoman, pointed out that the number of reports required by Congress nearly doubled from 140 to 260 between 2004 and 2005.

“There are a large amount of reporting requirements,” she said. “We have requested that Congress help us prioritize these many reports.”

One House Republican aide familiar with the process retorted: “The many requirements are a result of their dysfunction. We will remove them as soon as they start showing results.”

Sabo and Appropriations Committee ranking member David Obey (D-Wis.) blame Homeland Security’s problems on the level of staff turnover at the department.

Homeland Security has had two secretaries and three deputy secretaries in its brief existence. More than 40 percent of the high-level staff positions are currently vacant.

Rogers said the vacancies often mean that “there is not a director of an agency who feels he has any responsibility or authority to respond” to Congressional requests.

While the report on the energy and water appropriations bill is less inflammatory, it still offers significant criticism for the way the Army Corps of Engineers is interacting with Congress.

It takes the corps to task for its seeming unwillingness to propose a comprehensive plan for dealing with the variety of projects under its purview.

When asked to provide such a document, the corps gave the committee a seven-page table that lists hundreds of projects and their costs. The report dismisses that effort as an “inadequate and disappointing submission.”

Energy and water subcommittee Chairman David Hobson (R-Ohio) added: “In the absence of a rational and articulate strategy, the long-term vitality of the Corps is placed at risk and scarce federal resources will be squandered on projects of limited national benefit.”

John Bresnahan contributed to this report.