By Michael Scherer
Like many House Republicans, Rep. Mike Simpson of Idaho supports “drastically reducing discretionary spending” and warns that further growth in national debt could be “disastrous for the economy.” But as chairman of a powerful appropriations subcommittee in the House, Simpson takes a different tack, especially when it comes to programs that impact his home district.
“Simpson Secures Wildfire Funding in House Budget Bill,” his office announced last week in a press release, trumpeting Simpson’s “instrumental” role in adding $570 million in additional funds for wildfire suppression in a bill that passed the House Wednesday. Idaho has been particularly hard hit by recent fires, and the National Interagency Fire Center is located on the edge of his congressional district. “Idaho and the West faced an intense fire season in 2013,” Simpson said in the release, “requiring more funding than initially budgeted to protect communities and manage resources.”
Simpson is by no means an exception. Even in this new age of austerity, sequestration and budget cutting rhetoric, powerful members of Congress are having their way, defending favorite programs and finding money for pet projects. Key committee assignments can still mean millions for constituents back home. “In this earmark moratorium era, it’s less about stuffing in your pork projects than protecting your special interests back home,” explains Steve Ellis, the vice president of Taxpayers for Common Sense, a group that seeks to identify wasteful spending.
Consider the Speaker John Boehner, who has been publicly leading the charge for less federal outlays. “Spending is the problem here in Washington,” he likes to say. But he joined a bipartisan group of Senators and Congressman in 2011 to push for $181 million in funding the Army does not want for an upgrade program at the Abrams tank manufacturing plant in Lima, Ohio, just a few dozen miles from Boehner’s own Ohio Congressional district. The Army has already announced that it plans to phase out the cold-war era tank, and had sought to wind down production in Lima. Last May, the Obama Administration, citing a “fiscally constrained environment,” formally objected to the new funding. In a letter to the former Secretary of Defense, Leon Panetta, last year, more than 100 members of Congress, argued that “a modest and continued Abrams production for the Army is necessary to preserve the industrial base.”
Small-ticket items have also made the cut. Two programs for at-risk youth run by the military, Youth Challenge and Starbase Youth Program, were each funded at $5 million in the Defense portion of the recently passed House bill, which was created in conjunction with Senate appropriators. “If the program did not have champions on the Hill, it would not be getting this money,” says John Goheen, of the National Guard Association of America, a non-profit that supports the programs. Another outside nonprofit, the National Guard Youth Foundation, is also a supporter of the programs. It boasts an “Honorary Board” that includes many of the top appropriators in Congress, including Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., the chair of the Senate Appropriations committee and Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., who chairs the appropriations subcommittee on Homeland Security.
The final report from House appropriators on the bill that passed last week includes several other detailed examples of potentially money-saving audits that were not pursued. One proposal instructed the Department of Defense Inspector General to provide reports to Congress on the cost of Pentagon-sponsored conferences. Another dropped was a plan to require the Air Force to submit cost-benefit analyses for its force structure proposals. The House bill also included additional funding for nuclear weapons modernization, customs and border protection, new weather satellites, federal prisons and detention beds of Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
Of course, all of these changes are within the rights of Congress, which under the constitution has the power to tax and spend. But in most cases the details have attracted scant public attention. When the House passed the budget bill last week, Boehner called it “straightforward and reasonable.” This week, the Senate is expected to introduce and begin debate on its own version of a funding bill. Congressional leaders and President Obama say they hope to agree on a final funding package to avoid a government shutdown on March 27.
Correction: Speaker John Boehner sent a letter to the Army in 2011 urging a reconsideration of plans to temporarily shutter a tank production plant in Lima, Ohio, and his office publicly made a statement signaling his objection to the Army’s plans to stop production at the plant. The original version of this story said Boehner helped to insert the funding provision that passed the House last week that will provide $181 million in funding for tank production that the Army has not requested. A spokesman for Boehner says he played no role in inserting that provision in the bill. The story has been corrected to reflect this.