Thursday February 7 1:37 PM EST
By Julie Rovner
WASHINGTON (Reuters Health) - A high-level fight has broken out between the Bush administration and lawmakers over the age-old practice of using annual spending bills to direct federal agencies to fund specific projects. The administration is threatening not to fund some of the "earmarked" projects so it can allocate the money to help finance a shortfall in the Pell Grant college scholarship program, but members of Congress are fighting back.
"The power of the purse resides solely with Congress," wrote House Appropriations Committee Chairman Bill Young, R-Fla., to White House budget director Mitchell Daniels Wednesday. "Unless the Constitution is amended, Congress will continue to exercise its discretion over federal funds and will earmark those funds as we deem appropriate." For years, there were few such "earmarks" in the bill that funded the Department of Health and Human Services along with the Departments of Labor and Education, because the longtime chairman of the House Appropriations Subcommittee that oversaw the bill, the late Rep. Bill Natcher, D-Ky., refused to allow them.
But in recent years, the number of earmarked projects has burgeoned, to the point, noted the Bush administration's budget document released Monday, that the HHS spending bill for the current fiscal year includes $532 million for 690 specific projects.
Typical of the projects earmarked in tiny type in half a dozen single-spaced pages in the Congressional Record are $500,000 for the state of Alaska "for a project to reduce the high anemia rates of children in the Yukon Delta and Bristol Bay region;" $1 million for a national Multiple Sclerosis training center at the University of Texas, Dallas; and $500,000 for the St. Mary's Medical Center Comprehensive Cancer Care Center in Long Beach, Calif.
The administration in its budget complained that such earmarks "undermine the Department's ability to reward effective programs by diverting resources to unrequested, non-competitive projects. For example, in 2002, 100 percent of the $312 million appropriated for health facilities construction was earmarked by the Congress, leaving HHS with no discretion in deciding which construction projects would be funded." Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson complained to reporters at his budget briefing Monday about the growing tendency for Congress to direct the funding of individual projects.
Now, the administration says, it needs to find ways to make up a $1.3 billion shortfall in funding for the Pell Grant scholarship program, and it is eyeing the earmarked projects as "low priority."
But members of Congress are vowing not to let it happen without a fight. "If the goal is to rein in federal spending, Congressional earmarks are the wrong place to start," said Young in his letter. "Many of these projects are in rural communities or from small community-based organizations that lack the capacity to hire grant-writers and compete with more sophisticated organizations for funding. However, they provide important services for people, such as after-school centers, women's health programs, local clinic and hospital improvements, drug treatment, job training, and educational services."
Rep. David Obey, D-Wisc., the Appropriations
Committee's top Democrat, said the Administration's claim that the earmarks
are not subject to merit-based review "is an insult to members of both
bodies and both political parties. If a member of Congress, based on consultation
with local elected officials in his district decides that a health care
facility or an after school center is most needed in a particular community
it is no less merit-based than if a civil servant in Washington, working
under the direction of [the White House Budget Office], makes the same
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