Rep. David Obey (D-Wis.) sent a highly personal letter to his “friend” Rep. Ralph Regula (R-Ohio) Friday, offering to ease the tension over the Labor, Health and Human Services and Education spending bill.
At the end of a three-page, single-spaced letter, Obey, ranking member on the House Appropriations Committee, pledged his party’s support for a package that Democrats had vigorously and uniformly opposed, in return for two proposed changes.
Obey asked that the disputed $1 billion of proposed earmarks be diverted into the No Child Left Behind and Individuals with Disabilities Education Act programs. Furthermore, he conditioned Democratic support on the House’s acceding to the Senate’s language on overtime pay.
The $470 billion Labor HHS money package is once again emerging as the most contentious item in the annual appropriations endgame.
Obey and other Democratic lawmakers have been surprised that Regula, a seasoned appropriator with a reputation for gentle bipartisanship, plans to punish all House members of the minority party by denying them approximately $200 million in earmarks for districts represented by Democrats, leadership and appropriations sources say.
Democratic aides traced Regula’s newfound partisanship to Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas), speculating that Delay is “stringing along” Regula into falsely believing that he could succeed Rep. Bill Young (R-Fla.) as chairman of the full appropriations committee in next Congress if Regula flexes his partisan muscle on this bill.
But a Republican leadership aide said that Regula’s prospects to succeed Young still appear unlikely, even in light of his flinty Labor -HHS tactics.
“You and I have been good friends over the years,” wrote Obey.
“I know that in your heart you realize that this bill does not represent what we should be doing for our schools and I hope that somehow we can find a solution that is acceptable to a broad spectrum of the House and the American people,” he continued.
Regula had not responded to Obey’s offer by press time, said Dave Helfert, Obey’s spokesman. Democratic leadership aides are not optimistic that Regula will incorporate Obey’s suggestions.
Regula’s office did not respond to requests for comment.
“I still think they’re figuring out what Ralph has gotten them into. They’re still figuring out what to do,” said a Democratic aide.
The House appropriations “cardinal” spent yesterday working out other contentious points with his Senate counterpart, Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.). In particular, they reviewed the overtime pay issue, said an appropriations source.
The Labor-HHS conference report could be completed as early as late this week.
However, it may be wrapped into an omnibus appropriations bill, an option that becomes increasingly more likely as more time elapses.
Democrats charged that the tit-for-tat retribution over district projects in the Labor-HHS conference package is indicative of an appropriations process that is noticeably more partisan than in past years.
“Ten years ago it would have been impossible for an outside observer to know who was a Republican or Democrat on the Appropriations Committee except for which side members sat on. It was one of the most bipartisan committees in the House,” observed House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.).
“Unfortunately the committee is much more partisan now,” said Hoyer.
“Republican leaders’ decision to cut out Democratic projects from the Labor-HHS bill amounts to a thumbing of the nose at nearly half of the country. It is a decision that smacks of intimidation, vindictiveness and a failure of leadership.”
Democrats argued that inserting earmarked projects in the Labor-HHS is a relatively new development, one that began in 1996. In his letter, Obey retraced the brief history of earmarks in that particular spending bill. In the 1996 package, $33 million was set set aside for specific district projects. Two years later, that figure jumped to $97 million, and by FY 2002, they reached $1 billion.
Obey also noted that “the arguments against earmarks was made on an almost daily basis by members of your own party throughout the 1980s and early 1990s.” He recalled that Rep. Ernest Istook (R-Okla.), also a member of the Labor-HHS appropriations subcommittee, “was fond of saying during that period, ‘a pig is a pig, even if he lives at home.’”
“There is another reason that I find the proposal attributed to you deeply disturbing,” wrote Obey. He deplored “the creation of a slush fund to intimidate members into voting against adequate funds for programs that they that they believe are important for the American people.”
“This is nothing more than systematic bribery with public funds to enforce the ‘Robin Hood in reverse’ policies of your party,” he wrote.