New Round of Spending Bills Could Revive Detailed Demands on Agencies

Published Jun 17, 2011. By Kerry Young.

Appropriators are looking to dust off powerful oversight tools that were largely idled during last year’s showdown over fiscal 2011 spending, which will leave agencies on the hook to better explain how they are spending tax dollars.

In a typical budgeting cycle, lawmakers use the voluminous reports that accompany spending bills to offer more detailed instructions for how federal money should be spent or to request studies from the agency in question. Sometimes those directives are included in the bill text itself.

Agencies got a reprieve for fiscal 2011 when Congress wrapped up appropriations with a massive and hurried spending package (PL 112-10) that was mostly an extension of stopgap funding with little chance to include oversight language. But appropriators are feeling more optimistic about clearing new spending legislation before the end of the fiscal year in September, and government agencies should expect to field dozens of new congressional demands.

Congress could clear one or two fiscal 2012 appropriations bills as stand-alone measures in the fall, before wrapping up the year’s spending legislation in an omnibus measure by December. And any omnibus package would also likely include report language this time.

Lawmaker demands in a report come in varying degrees of strength. Their tone — or even their choice of verbs — can signal how serious they are about making changes to an agencies’ operations. Even though most instructions don’t become law, agencies are wise to heed them because it could be risky to disregard requests from the members of Congress who also control their money.

To use a recent example, the Homeland Security Department would have to fill requests for more than 50 briefings and 20 reports included in the committee report (H Rept 112-91) accompanying the first spending bill (HR 2017) passed by the House this year. The Transportation Security Administration, for instance, would have to produce a report detailing how long passengers wait for screening at airports, and how close TSA can get to a goal of keeping average wait times at 10 minutes or less.

The directives could change significantly before the bill becomes law, with the Senate needing to weigh in before it is cleared for the president’s signature. But even clearing a few appropriations bills would mark a major shift from last year, offering lawmakers a new chance to use the spending process to influence government work.

Checks and Balances

The new House Republican majority is particularly eager to flex its muscles, attempting to rein in what it considers over-regulation and over-reach by many agencies and to curtail new health care and financial industry laws (PL 111-148, PL 111-152 and PL 111-203) it opposed.

For instance, the committee report accompanying the fiscal 2012 Agriculture spending bill (HR 2112) takes aim at the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for being part of an investigation into whether cyclist Lance Armstrong may have used performance-enhancing drugs outside of the United States.

“The Committee can discern no prudent interest for the FDA to investigate allegations that unapproved drugs may have been used outside the United States, where there is no allegation that they were sought to be imported into the U.S. and no risks to public health in the U.S.,” the report says, echoing concerns expressed by Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee Chairman Jack Kingston, R-Ga., a self-described fiscal conservative and cycling enthusiast.

Still, oversight work has long been bipartisan, with minority members often getting to add their views and directives.

Angered by the cost of a NASCAR promotion paid for by the Veterans Affairs Department, House Democratic appropriator Betty McCollum, D-Minn., persuaded colleagues to prevent a repeat. The fiscal 2012 Military Construction-VA bill (HR 2055), which the House passed June 15, bars the VA from spending more than $250,000 on any single marketing campaign, “including motorsports sponsorship,” without first seeking the permission of the Appropriations committees in both chambers.

Some departments and programs — such as the FDA and the Coast Guard — remain in lawmakers’ cross hairs for quite awhile. Appropriators and their aides also tend to pay attention to fairly well-known programs, so they often develop deep working relationships over time with agency officials.

“They have a healthy understanding of each other,” said Joshua B. Gordon, policy director of The Concord Coalition, a nonprofit budget watchdog group.

Managers at federal agencies are likely to cooperate with appropriators’ demands, even non-binding report language, said Beverly Pheto, a senior policy adviser at the law firm Polsinelli Shughart.

“All agencies are well aware of who decides how much funding they have from year to year,” said Pheto, who was Democratic staff director and clerk of the House Appropriations Committee for former Rep. David R. Obey, D-Wis., in the 111th Congress.

Or, as Mark Steven Kirk, R-Ill., a freshman senator who has been an appropriator in both chambers, put it, “Money talks — on policy.”