It's oversight season: 'Hundreds' of hearings to tackle funding cuts

House appropriations oversight season starts in earnest this week as subcommittees hold the first of “hundreds” of oversight hearings to trim funding for federal agencies and programs.

On Wednesday, two of the 12 appropriations subcommittees are set to review budget numbers with key officials from the Justice Department, Commerce Department, NASA and Securities and Exchange Commission.

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Since taking on the role as Appropriations Committee Chair, Rep. Hal Rogers (R-Ky.), a former prosecutor, has made it known that he expects the so-called “cardinals” – appropriations subcommittee chairmen – to hold vigorous oversight of any and all agencies that are funded with taxpayer dollars.

A committee aide said that these are the first of “hundreds” of hearings with agency representatives and department heads.

“One of the chairman’s overarching priorities for the committee is to conduct vigorous and comprehensive oversight of every single federal agency, department and program. He’s instructed his subcommittee chairmen to hold hundreds of oversight hearings between now and the time when we’re going to be writing our bills in order for them to make the best possible decisions on prioritizing programs, cost/benefit analysis and making sure that the taxpayers' money is being spent appropriately and to decide where to cut,” the aide told The Hill.

The appropriations committee usually produces funding bills for the fiscal year in early summer.

Commerce-Justice-Science (C-J-S) Appropriations subcommittee Chairman Rep. Frank Wolf (R-Va.) scheduled a hearing with Acting Justice Inspector General Cynthia Schnedar and Commerce Inspector General Todd Zinser on Wednesday. On Thursday, C-J-S appropriators are set to hear from NASA Inspector General Paul K. Martin and National Science Foundation Inspector General Allison Lerner.

“The goal of the hearings is to help identify top management challenges and find ways to eliminate waste, fraud and abuse in these respective departments and agencies,” Wolf said in a statement released late last week. An aide familiar with the subcommittee’s schedule noted that the panel has at least 25 similar hearings planned through March.

Financial Services and General Government Subcommittee Chairwoman Rep. Jo Ann Emerson (R-Mo.) has also scheduled several hearings to review budget numbers with inspectors general of three federally funded programs including the Treasury Department’s tax administration, the Postal Service and the Securities and Exchange Commission.

As subcommittees begin their oversight hearings, appropriators will have to create spending bills to fund government operations for the rest of 2011. The continuing resolution approved by Congress in December is set to expire on March 4.

Budget Committee Chairman Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) released a budget blueprint to cap spending at $1.055 trillion for 2011. That number is $74 billion less than the budget request President Obama submitted to Congress for fiscal 2011 and $32 billion less than the level at which lawmakers agreed to maintain spending.

Rogers said on Thursday that the GOP will seek to make the deepest cuts to funding for transportation, housing, agriculture and justice as it seeks to bring down spending for the rest of 2011.

Rogers said that subcommittee chairmen will be focusing on those areas in an attempt to meet the $1.055 trillion total spending ceiling set by Ryan. Rogers said an increase in defense spending compared to 2010 levels will be allowed.

House Republicans are intent on cutting as much as $100 billion from annual discretionary spending – or reverting to pre-economic stimulus, pre-bank bailout levels in 2008.

Some Republicans want to cut even more from discretionary spending – which means that the oversight hearings to be held over the next few months in the appropriations subcommittees will take on a greater importance, as lawmakers demand that agency and program heads justify their individual funding levels.

Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.), vice-chairman of the State and Foreign Operations appropriations subcommittee, said that he anticipates a rigorous schedule on his panels. Cole also sits on the Interior and Defense appropriations subcommittees.

Cole expects that the oversight hearings will focus primarily on government spending in 2012.

And he has some advice for officials headed to the hot seat: be prepared for tough questions on money spent to operate respective federal programs.

“A lot of these things are popular programs or good programs … but, you still have to live within your means, sometimes there are things that are good that you just can’t afford, we’re in that position right now,” Cole said in an interview with The Hill.

Cole also said that the hearings will help appropriators make the cuts needed to specific programs, as opposed to broad, across-the-board cuts for all agencies.

“We’ll try and reprioritize, we’ll look at everything, everything will be on the table but I don’t expect any across the board cuts, I expect instead, an effort to prioritize what’s truly important, we’re going to have some sharp differences with Democrats,” Cole said, adding that Republicans will also face differences within the party.

Erik Wasson and Vicki Needham contributed to this report