By Walter Alarkon - 06/22/09 08:38 PM EDT
The president proposed axing dozens of programs that he said were inefficient or ineffective, but members of the House Appropriations Committee are including the money for them.
They are looking to cut elsewhere — and are targeting even some of Obama’s priorities.
Democrats on the panel are, for example, leaving out $60 million required to close the prison in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba — one of Obama’s campaign promises.
Spending bills marked up by the House have found funds for prisons for illegal immigrants, grants for public telecom facilities, and homeland security programs sending money back to local officials — all of which had been chopped by the White House.
Obama had called for $19.8 billion of cuts in discretionary spending next year, saying the reductions are “setting the right priorities with our spending.”
But in the five spending bills that have so far been reported out of the House Appropriations Committee, lawmakers have ignored at least $655 million of the president’s proposed cuts.
The biggest disagreement has been a $400 million reduction in federal spending for state prisons to incarcerate illegal immigrants. The White House said the money would be better spent on a broader overhaul of immigration.
Lawmakers from states with many illegal immigrants disagreed and fought to pay for the State Criminal Alien Assistance Program, noting that their states are suffering a severe fiscal crises.
“At a time when California is experiencing unprecedented budget challenges, my state’s taxpayers should not be burdened with funding incarceration costs of criminals who are by law the responsibility of the federal government,” said Rep. Mike Honda (D-Calif.), a House appropriator.
House members also ignored Obama’s cut of $145 million for local drinking water infrastructure; $35 million in grants for states’ emergency operations centers; $35 million for a Coast Guard radio-based navigation system; and $12 million for security on inter-city bus lines. The White House said those programs had become outdated because of new technology or overlapped with more efficient programs.
Honda, who was joined by other California Democrats and Republicans to defend the prison program, said lawmakers also want fiscal discipline. Honda also said Obama inherited a large deficit from the Bush administration, and that the economic downturn compounded that problem.
“Congress, too, is feeling the pinch and in order to be fiscally responsible, we are making the necessary adjustments,” Honda said.
All five spending bills reported out of the House Appropriations Committee have sought to fund departments with the same or less money than Obama sought, Democrats note. The House Appropriations Committee has capped discretionary spending for all 12 annual spending bills at $1.27 trillion; the administration sought $1.39 trillion.
“We are $10 billion below the president’s request,” said Ellis Brachman, spokesman for House Appropriations Committee Chairman David Obey (D-Wis.). “[Lawmakers] are going through the budget, cutting or reducing programs so we can fund higher-priority items and so we can reduce the budget overall.”
The lawmakers’ other cuts from the president’s budget request include: $50 million for a new national forests preservation program and $106 million for new asylum and refugee services.
The administration has yet to come up with a clear plan on how to close the Guantanamo prison, lawmakers said. The forest program duplicated existing services, House members add.
“The president proposes the budget, Congress takes the budget and makes a determination on what they want to do,” Brachman said. “The Constitution gives Congress the power of the purse.”
The fiscal impact of each approach may be similar; the president and Congress are both seeking a few billion dollars in cuts. Many discretionary programs that do little to provide services or help the economy will remain, said William Hoagland, a former GOP congressional budget aide.
“A number of those proposals that [Obama] had to increase funding were specifically designed in those areas of increased investment and economic growth, and those policies were funded by eliminating or reducing or cutting back on programs that have outlived their usefulness,” Hoagland said.
The president may consider threatening to veto a spending bill if it contains many programs that don’t meet his goal of stabilizing the economy, said Hoagland, now vice president of public policy at Cigna Corp.
“Is this a microcosm of other presidential initiatives where Congress might say, ‘Wait a minute, we disagree with you, Mr. President’?” Hoagland said.
Republican lawmakers are dismissing the Democrats’ and the president’s attempts to find cuts, saying they amount to small change. Even with the cuts, the proposed spending bills will increase discretionary spending by 12 percent over last year, according to an analysis by GOP appropriators.
“In no way does this represent a return to fiscal responsibility,” said Jennifer Hing, spokeswoman for Republicans on the Appropriations panel. “No matter what they say about eliminating programs, the truth is that this Congress is engaging in unprecedented rampant spending which is dangerously unsustainable.”