How Congress's 13 'Cardinals' Control Budget

AFTER months of pencil-breaking calculations, the House and Senate have adopted one of the most significant plans for shrinking government ever written in two centuries of congressional history.

John Porter's response: So what?

The only thing the GOP congressman from Illinois is interested in is the bottom line. He says he hasn't even looked at all the recommendations for consolidating agencies. He just wants to make his own decisions.

"The Budget Committee has authority over a single number," he says. "It's a powerful number. But the details are still in the hands of appropriations subcommittees."

As one of 13 House appropriations subcommittee chairmen, Mr. Porter belongs to one of the most powerful and secretive groups in Congress - the so-called college of cardinals.

In the organization chart of power in Washington, budget committees determine how much to withdraw from the bank. Appropriators like Porter decide where to spend it.

These panel heads have authority over all spending decisions made each year. They can steer policy by mere suggestion, by threatening to cut funding for programs or agencies that fail to respond to their concerns.

Even as the House and Senate voted on the final version of the budget resolution last Thursday, the focus on Capitol Hill had already shifted to this clique of 13, who bear the task of wringing billions of dollars in savings from scores of federal programs and agencies. No other panels are more important to the GOP effort to balance the budget and recast government.

And on the House side, no other committee will test the authority and leadership skills more of Newt Gingrich, who has consolidated power as no other Speaker this century. In years past, appropriators have operated with near-complete autonomy from the top leaders of Congress.

But Mr. Gingrich is trying to change that. He bypassed more senior Republicans in handing the full Appropriations Committee gavel to a loyal lieutenant, Rep. Bob Livingston (R) of Louisiana, thus gaining a measure of leverage.

Moreover, at a closed-door meeting of House Republicans last week, according to a member who was there, the Speaker required that all spending bills for the first time be formally reviewed by the Budget Committee before reaching the floor. Normally, the Appropriations Committee is the last stop. The change, though subtle and arcane to anyone outside the Beltway, represents what many consider an important and unusual attempt by House leaders to control the appropriations process.

The move "tilts the scale enormously toward the Budget Committee in terms of where the clout is," says Norman Ornstein, a student of Congress at the American Enterprise Institute. "But that doesn't mean it's a bad idea. Appropriators often find ways to get around the process."

While the Budget Committee has taken on a high profile amid Republican promises to balance the budget in seven years, appropriators prefer to work offstage. After decades in power, for example, the old Democratic cardinals would gather in their august Capitol committee room and, often in just three-quarters of an hour, spend three-quarters of a trillion dollars.

Despite the addition of a few women members in recent years, appropriations remains a male-dominated world. The first female staffers were also hired just this year.

Members and staffers pride themselves on bipartisanship. When asked, for example, whether the committee's workings had changed at all since the Republicans took charge, Fred Mohrman, staff director under the Democrats and still a top figure in the committee, responded bruskly: "No. Look, we're still cutting, we're still appropriating." He then hung up.

But some things have changed. For the first time ever, subcommittee drafting sessions are open. More significantly, the entire thrust of appropriating has shifted. With their focus on deficit reduction, Republicans are using the appropriating process not to perpetuate programs but to revamp government itself.

"When we began the process in my subcommittee, there were a sizeable number of programs that have never been reviewed," says Rep. Jerry Lewis (R) of California, who heads the influential panel on Veterans' Affairs, Public Housing, and Space Exploration. "HUD [the Department of Housing and Urban Development] is broken, and needs a huge adjustment in the number of personnel. EPA [the Environmental Protection Agency] has a need for review. NASA needs to rethink where it's going."

A debate over midterm cuts from this year's budget underscores just how difficult the task of reducing government spending in the future will be. After President Clinton vetoed an earlier version of the bill, Republicans and the White House agreed to a revised package that would cut $16.3 billion from current spending on a broad range of government programs.

This package of rescissions from the 1995 budget sailed through the House Thursday, but two junior Democrats derailed the bill in the Senate on Friday in an effort to restore $600 million for youth job training and elderly heating assistance.

The 13 appropriations bills for 1996, which must cut 10 times the amount that the rescissions bill does, are sure to draw similar floor skirmishes. And no one anticipates that more than Chairmen Porter and Lewis, who preside over the two largest appropriations panels and must do some of the most difficult pruning.

Porter will have to cut 15 percent from labor, housing, and education programs. In all likelihood, he says, this means eliminating such programs as heating assistance for the elderly and turning the Corporation for Public Broadcasting into an independent agency. He also questions the need for a surgeon general.

"It's not easy to cut $10 billion from a $70-billion discretionary allocation," says Porter, sitting in an ornate hearing room. "When you take a 15 percent cut in overall funding, there is obvious pain."

But both chairmen express enthusiasm, casting their task as more about reining in an inefficient system than cutting needed programs. "Every 40 years or so you have to prune the tree," Porter says. "The Department of Education has 163 job training programs. Do we need all those? No."

"Job training, aid to the disabled - all these are important priorities for the country," he adds. "My first priority is getting our fiscal house in order. We have to look at every program - at what works and what doesn't - and target our efforts toward those in true need. The American people will accept what we do if we do it fairly and intelligently."

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