|BEATING THE CLOCK|
September 7, 1999
JIM LEHRER: Appropriating in Congress. Kwame Holman reports.
KWAME HOLMAN: On that day in January when he was elected Speaker of the House, Illinois Republican Dennis Hastert before fellow members and issued a formidable challenge.
REP. DENNIS HASTERT, Speaker of the House: To all my colleagues, I say, we must get our job done, and done now, and we have an obligation to pass all the appropriation bills by this summer, and we will not leave this chamber until we do. (Applause)
KWAME HOLMAN: Members were in a festive mood, and they applauded the new Speaker's ambition, but House approval of all 13 appropriations bills by summer's end seemed unlikely. Most years, progress is slow. Catch-all spending bills called continuing resolutions often are needed to keep parts of the government operating past September 30th, the end of the fiscal year. But just before they left Washington for the summer recess last month, members of the House approved the tenth and eleventh appropriations bills, and only a family emergency involving a key member prevented quick approval of a 12th. Florida Republican Bill Young, serving his first term as chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, felt he had accomplished his mission.
REP. BILL YOUNG, Chairman Appropriations Committee: Despite the fact we had to say no to an awful lot of members because we didn't have the money to fund a program that they wanted to fund exactly the way they wanted it, listen to this, Mr. Chairman: The Transportation Appropriations Bill passed with a vote of 429-3; the Energy and Water Appropriations Bill passed with a vote of 420-8; the Military Construction Appropriations Bill passed with a vote of 418-4.
KWAME HOLMAN: In fact, most of the spending bills passed with overwhelming majorities, but the last of the appropriation bills the House will debate and vote on, the 13th, could prove to be the unlucky one.
KWAME HOLMAN: Your bottom line is, you cannot pass a bill unless you get about $15 billion more.
REP. JOHN PORTER, Subcommittee Chairman, Labor-HHS: Well, my bottom line is that I can't pass a bill unless I get 218 votes. It is a judgment call as to what the exact figure is.
KWAME HOLMAN: Illinois Republican John Porter is chairman of the Appropriations Subcommittee that funds the departments of Labor, Education, and Health and Human Services. While the other 12 subcommittee chairmen were allocated enough money to steer their respective bills through the House, Porter believes he was shortchanged by about $15 billion.
KWAME HOLMAN: How do you plan to make up that $15 billion?
REP. JOHN PORTER: I don't. I plan to have the leadership tell me where they're going to get the $15 billion. My job is to write a passable bill; their job is to get the resources to make it happen.
KWAME HOLMAN: Porter's problem can be traced back to the Balanced Budget Agreement of 1997. Budget surpluses weren't yet in the forecast, annual federal deficits still were the concern, and so Congress and the President agreed to set strict-- some would call them draconian-- limits on so-called discretionary spending for the years ahead. The figure set for fiscal year 2000 was $538 billion.
REP. TOM COBURN, (R) Oklahoma: That's the max that we can spend. Now, how you mix that up depends on what happens, and if it's mixed improperly, when you get to the end bills, you don't have enough money, and that's where we were headed.
KWAME HOLMAN: Oklahoma Republican Tom Coburn is a spending conservative. When we talked with him back in June, he was concerned House Republican leaders had allocated too much money to the first five spending bills in order to ensure their easy passage and get the appropriations process off to a fast start.
REP. TOM COBURN: We were going to spend all the money up front and not have money available to bills that would never pass the House, and then we would be forced to say, "well, we've got to spend Social Security money to do this."
KWAME HOLMAN: So Coburn quietly revolted. He methodically began offering the first of 100 amendments to the agriculture spending bill, a move that slowed the appropriations process to a crawl and angered many of his colleagues.
REP. EARL POMEROY, (D) North Dakota: Many of us believe that hijacking the floor of this House is not the appropriate way to advance our strong convictions, work within the process, plug along, and ultimately try and make your beliefs prevail. But to unilaterally tee off on America's farmers, as is the case with the hundred-plus amendments sponsored by the gentleman, is fundamentally wrong and utterly unrelated to the concerns that he continues to tell us so much about.
KWAME HOLMAN: But Coburn got words of support as well.
REP. MARK SANFORD, (R) South Carolina: This is what these amendments have been all about. They've been about trying to prevent a train wreck that is most certainly headed our way if we do not adopt the gentleman from Oklahoma's proposals, because as we all know, while agriculture has stayed within the caps, Labor-HHS, there is no way we're going to come up with $5 billion worth of trimming in that account; VA-HUD, over $3 billion worth of trimming in that account. Unless we come up with his savings now, we're headed for a train wreck later on.
KWAME HOLMAN: Coburn's tactics led to an emergency meeting of House Republicans, and when it was over, Speaker Hastert and Appropriations Chairman Young had agreed to spread the $538 billion in available funds more evenly among the 13 appropriation bills. Coburn was satisfied.
REP. TOM COBURN: So my whole effort was not to necessarily attack the Ag Bill. It was to use that as a focal point to say to our leadership, "you have to have a plan before we're going to move forward with this process."
KWAME HOLMAN: As for John Porter, he benefited slightly from Coburn's protest.
REP. JOHN PORTER: My allocation under the first allocation was at $78 billion, and the next allocation, the one that's the result of the speaker's initiative, looks to be somewhere around $80 billion.
KWAME HOLMAN: But that still left him far short even of the money he received to fund this year's labor-HHS operations.
REP. JOHN PORTER: We're $9 billion under current spending in this account, and I believe and I think everyone believes, that you cannot pass a bill in the House or in the Senate that makes cuts of anywhere near that magnitude, maybe any cuts at all.
KWAME HOLMAN: That was June, and for Porter, it only got worse. On July 30, two months after Appropriations Chairman Bill Young agreed to add $2 billion to the labor-HHS Bill, he turned around and removed $4.5 billion, shifting it to the Veteran Affairs and Housing Bill. Said Young of the tactic, "we're doing it one bill at a time."
KWAME HOLMAN: Mr. Chairman, what has changed since we last talked?
REP. JOHN PORTER: Our allocation as gone down by $4 billion, maybe $5 billion since when we last talked, and we're now at $73 billion. I have made up a mark that is slightly below current spending that I think can pass the House of Representatives. So basically I'm about $15 billion short of what I need to get to a passable bill.
KWAME HOLMAN: While stripping down the Labor-HHS Bill made John Porter simmer, David Obey, the senior Democrat on the Appropriations Committee, reached a full boil.
REP. DAVID OBEY, (D) Wisconsin: They're at the point now where they have moved so much money out of that bill, or pretend that they have, in order to make room for the other bills, that they are expecting us to believe that they're going to cut Pell grants by 30 percent, that they're going to cut research at the National Institutes of Health by one-third, that they're going to cut job training by one-third, that they're going to cut virtually all of our education by one-third. Does anybody in the country really believe that? Does anybody in the country really believe that country would stand for us gutting our education and health and job training programs? I don't think so.
KWAME HOLMAN: Obey says Republican leaders simply are playing a game in an attempt to sell $800 billion worth of tax cuts to the American people.
REP. DAVID OBEY: It's all a political charade in order to pretend that they're going to be able to provide these massive tax cuts, and these, and these tax cuts are all based on the, on the promise that you're going to have surpluses as far as the eye can see, and those surpluses are built on false promises about their plans to cut other spending. This Congress isn't going to make those cuts, and when you eliminate that one phony assumption, 80 percent of those so-called surpluses disappear.
KWAME HOLMAN: Porter says one solution would be for the President and the Republican-controlled Congress to loosen the spending caps they set two years ago to better reflect the strong performance of the economy. However, neither side seems willing to risk making the first move to spend more. So when Porter's subcommittee meets again to try to write a bill, they will have to do it with less.
KWAME HOLMAN: Do you feel in any way, Congressman, like the last person standing when the music stops and you don't have a chair?
REP. JOHN PORTER: I think that's a pretty good analogy, yeah. It's always the most difficult bill to pass, there's no question about it.
KWAME HOLMAN: Even if Chairman Porter and the House complete work on the Labor-HHS Spending Bill, it and the 12 other Appropriation Bills need to be reconciled with the senate and obtain the President's signature-- all of that before the fiscal year ends in three weeks.