Mailing in their own wish lists, lawmakers try to shape president’s budget

By Kevin Bogardus | 02/24/2015 08:30 AM EST

Members of Congress have worked behind the scenes for weeks, if not months, to influence President Obama’s fiscal 2016 budget request.

Agency logs and congressional letters obtained by E&E Daily under the Freedom of Information Act show prominent lawmakers in both parties drew up their own particular wish lists for energy and environmental projects. They often sought millions of dollars more than the president requested for programs that would benefit their constituents back home.

The pen-palling for money has become part of how Washington, D.C., conducts its business. With Capitol Hill now an earmark-free zone, House members and senators have to find creative ways to secure federal dollars for their favorite government goodies.


"It’s a modern-day version of earmarks," said Stan Collender, a former House and Senate budget committee aide. "When Congress banned ‘earmarks,’ it led to action elsewhere, whether it was a phone call to a Cabinet member, a speech from the floor or a letter. A letter is better because you actually have something to show to your constituents."

The letters, many sent last year, helped kick off an arduous annual budget process. Congress will debate the president’s budget plan, then propose its own in response, and then finally — with a good dose of government shutdown dramatics likely — appropriate the funds to various agencies and programs just before lawmakers fly home for the holidays.

The correspondence is also part of Congress’ move to grasp some of the funding power it lost to the executive branch with the earmark ban. The letters, however, might not have much impact with the Obama administration, which has ignored several funding requests included in legislation, such as the Water Resources Reform and Development Act (Greenwire, Feb. 20).

"A lot of lawmakers want to affect the president’s budget during the earmark moratorium age because they can just defend what’s in the president’s budget then," said Steve Ellis, vice president for Taxpayers for Common Sense, a budget watchdog group.

A Nov. 24 letter from Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), one of the Senate’s more senior appropriators, certainly had mixed results when it came to influencing the president’s budget request.

In the missive to Office of Management and Budget Director Shaun Donovan, Feinstein laid out specific dollar amounts needed to fund eight different programs run by U.S. EPA, the Fish and Wildlife Service and the Forest Service. Her list included restoring the San Francisco Bay, cleaning up the U.S.-Mexico border, and building infrastructure for public wastewater and drinking water systems.

She didn’t have much success, with the administration not matching many of her requests and not even including funds for beach protection and California condors.

In a statement to E&E Daily, Feinstein didn’t seem perturbed. The ranking member on the Senate Energy and Water Development Appropriations Subcommittee said "one of my top priorities is ensuring California gets its fair share from the federal budget — and this process takes time."

"The only numbers that count are those agreed upon by the House and Senate and signed into law," Feinstein said. "Now that we have the president’s budget request, we’re holding hearings and will debate how those final appropriations bills will look. As a member of the Appropriations Committee, I’m always focused on full funding for key California programs, and that’s what I’ll be doing over the next few months."

Congress tends to get its way when it comes to taxpayer money. Two of Feinstein’s priorities — beach protection and diesel emission reduction grants, both run by EPA — have seen the administration propose to reduce their funding in the past, only to have it later restored by Congress.

Other senior Democrats are seemingly at odds with the White House when it comes to the budget.

According to an EPA congressional correspondence log, Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) in September weighed in on fiscal 2016 funding for the agency’s efforts to clean up Lake Champlain.

In the text of the letter provided by Leahy’s office, the senator, who sits on the Appropriations Committee, asked EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy to "reprioritize" the program and sought assurances "that you will advocate for the inclusion of at least $5 million … in the administration’s FY16 budget request" for it.

Leahy’s wish was not granted, though the administration set aside close to $1.4 million for the Lake Champlain program in its budget plan. In an email, David Carle, a Leahy spokesman, noted that the administration has requested that dollar amount for the program in prior years, but last year, with Leahy’s support, funding for cleaning up Lake Champlain was raised to nearly $4.4 million by Congress.

"Sen. Leahy has championed the health/vitality/cleanup of Lake Champlain for four decades," Carle said. "Each year he does all he can to make sure these efforts and this program are adequately funded to address these issues."

Others on Capitol Hill will have to fight this year to see their projects at EPA receive more funds.

Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.) wrote a letter to the agency last August urging officials to "include at least $10 million for the restoration and protection of Long Island Sound," according to an agency log. The president’s budget only set aside roughly $2.9 million for the project in fiscal 2016, about a $1 million cut from current funding levels.

Going on record

Collender, now executive vice president at public relations and lobby firm Qorvis MSLGROUP, said lawmakers wanted to lay down a marker with agencies with their letters.

"You try to set things up in the beginning. You don’t have to wait until an appropriations bill to write a letter that you can show to your constituents," Collender said. "Whether it’s with a budget request, an individual appropriations bill or an omnibus, [members of Congress] want the department to know that they want the money to be spent this way."

Agencies will also hear from Capitol Hill in person about where the money goes. Top officials from EPA and the Departments of Energy and the Interior will all sit before various House Appropriations subcommittees this week to answer questions about their budget requests.

Yet it’s not gloomy for all members of Congress. The White House was more generous with other lawmakers.

In September last year, Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) and the now-retired Carl Levin (D-Mich.) wrote to DOE and OMB about the Facility for Rare Isotope Beams, a scientific research facility that’s being built on Michigan State University’s campus. The two senators urged the "inclusion of at least $100 million for FRIB," according to a DOE log.

In its fiscal 2016 budget request, the department included $100 million for the facility. FRIB should be completed by 2020, according to a Stabenow aide.

Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz "continues to be a strong supporter of FRIB and has made comments about how they will continue to be building and advancing cutting-edge research facilities," said the aide. "The same goes with Sen. Stabenow. She has, and will continue to be, very supportive of funding for this critical facility that will create jobs and significantly benefit the economy."

Some members of Congress avoided using dollar figures in their letters to high-level administration officials when it came to seeking funds for projects back home.

In a Nov. 3 letter to Moniz, Reps. Eric Swalwell (D-Calif.) and Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.) ask him to keep "level funding" for activities at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, including the Inertial Confinement Fusion Ignition and High Yield program.

That program would be cut by about $10.4 million from current funding levels under Obama’s budget proposal, though the administration still proposed spending nearly $502.5 million on it for fiscal 2016. Allison Bormel, a Swalwell spokeswoman, said the two lawmakers remain supportive of the program "and will continue to advocate for sustained funding."

"They have been successful in the past in fighting against drastic funding cuts so the program can continue its national security and basic science mission. They will once again be leading a letter requesting sustained funding in FY16," Bormel said.

Others on Capitol Hill emphasized the strength-in-numbers approach when making a budget request of the administration.

Sens. John Thune (R-S.D.), Charles Grassley (R-Iowa), Al Franken (D-Minn.), Mike Rounds (R-S.D.) and Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), as well as Reps. Kristi Noem (R-S.D.), Steve King (R-Iowa), Tim Walz (D-Minn.) and Collin Peterson (D-Minn.), all signed onto a Jan. 20 letter to Donovan and Interior Secretary Sally Jewell asking for more federal support of the Lewis & Clark Regional Water System.

Once completed, the rural water project will serve 300,000 people spread across South Dakota, Minnesota and Iowa. The project’s costs have been split between the federal government and those states, which have already met 100 percent of their obligations.

In the letter, the lawmakers said they hoped the fiscal 2016 budget request would "reflect a desire" by the administration "to meet the long overdue federal commitment" to the water system.

The White House did boost its budget request slightly from current funding levels to almost $2.8 million in fiscal 2016.

Ellis said lawmakers need to move sooner than expected to shape the president’s budget plan, though putting one’s request in print can send a clear message to the administration.

"This thing is kind of set in stone weeks before it hits the street. … If you are trying to affect the budget request, you have to be in there early," Ellis said. "It does put it on the record for the agencies on what you want for the future."