Amid cuts, a lobbying push to restore government programs

Groups that advocate for everything from more foreign aid to bolstering the nation’s transportation system saw several of their favorite government programs suffer deep spending cuts in the fiscal 2011 budget deal.

With millions of dollars now axed from what they consider key federal initiatives, groups are planning to redouble their efforts and lobby to restore as much funding as possible in next year’s budget. That will be a difficult task with both President Obama and House Republicans claiming deficit reduction as a top priority heading into the 2012 election race.

ADVERTISEMENT
“We are trying to walk a line and accept both realities,” said Ken Forsberg, senior manager of legislative affairs at InterAction. “One is the political reality here in Washington, where you see the kind of cuts that were proposed in [the House GOP budget plan for the rest of 2011]. But the second reality is the outside world, where this aid is still desperately needed, despite House Republicans wanting to cut spending everywhere.”

InterAction is a coalition of international humanitarian groups that includes Oxfam, World Vision and CARE and lobbies for more foreign aid. That part of the budget came under attack when Democrats and Republicans reached their deal last week to prevent a government shutdown, signing off on $39.9 billion in spending cuts. 

Under the budget deal, international emergency food aid lost about $350 million and the U.S. Agency for International Development’s budget was reduced by $42 million compared to last year’s funding levels.

Forsberg said it was unrealistic for lawmakers to make any dent in the nation’s debt by reducing U.S. foreign aid. Further, he said these programs solidify America’s relationships around the world, strengthening its national security and trade ties. 

“You're not going to balance the budget by cutting foreign assistance,” Forsberg said. “We need to be planting the seeds for future economic prosperity around the world.”

Others saw big cuts in government programs that shouldn’t have been touched by deficit hawks.

Mike Wallace, program director for housing and community development at the National League of Cities, said city governments were particularly concerned by the House GOP budget plan for the rest of the year.

The GOP plan proposed a $2.5 billion cut in the Community Development Block Grant program, which funds construction of and repairs for streets, sidewalks and sewer systems, among other big capital projects. That cut was narrowed in the final budget to just about $700 million, a 16 percent reduction from fiscal 2010 levels. 

“Local elected officials really helped bring that number up. Still, a 16 percent cut is going to have a pretty significant impact,” said Wallace. “We're talking about staff layoffs at the city level. Cities are also going to have completely reorganize their budgets mid-year and prioritize some things out.”

Wallace said city governments recognize the anti-spending climate in Washington but added that local officials will continue to make the case for federal funds this year.

“In this environment, the numbers from fiscal 2011 might be the new baseline, but our message isn't going to change,” Wallace said. “We're focusing on those local programs that create jobs and spur economic growth.”

Other groups will be looking at legislation that can help fill the funding gaps now left by the budget deal. Paul Dean, director of government relations for the American Public Transportation Association, said Congress should get to work on a highway bill to fill the country’s infrastructure needs.

“There is no doubt about it that we need a long-term authorization bill with ways to find new revenue and provide a baseline of funding so we are not out there year after year being an easy target for cuts,” Dean said.

Dean’s group is lamenting spending cuts made to the high-speed rail program and transit security grants as well as funding for “fixed guideway” projects, which include commuter trains, cable cars and ferryboats, among other public transit systems.

Volunteer service programs also came under the knife in the budget deal, but advocates for those groups are saying they will continue to push for more funding.

“We just firmly believe now is the time to be investing in these programs, not divesting in them. ... These are the organizations that everyone now is turning to fill in the gap in services,” said AnnMaura Connolly, campaign director for the Save Service Coalition.

Made up of groups like City Year, Habitat for Humanity and Teach for America, the coalition is lobbying to restore funds to a variety of volunteer service program that saw their budgets slashed in the budget deal.

AmeriCorps lost about $22.5 million of funding in the deal while Learn and Serve America, which sets up volunteer programs for students, saw a $40 million cut. Connolly expects a tough year ahead and says her coalition needs to get voters to speak up and defend volunteer programs to Congress.

“We need to make these arguments again louder and stronger,” Connolly said. “We need to get constituents back home to engage with their lawmakers and tell them that these kinds of cuts will have an impact on them and the communities they represent.”