The Washington Post
Rep. Steny H. Hoyer (Md.), the House's second-ranking Democrat, hoped to use funds from a $138 billion spending bill now before Congress to upgrade the computer system at St. Mary's College of Maryland, modernize laboratories at the University of Maryland School of Pharmacy, and support a nonprofit group that repairs the homes of poor, elderly and disabled Marylanders.
Now those local projects, along with hundreds of others in districts represented by House Democrats, are jeopardized by an unusually nasty political battle that threatens to upset the traditional bipartisan comity of the House Appropriations Committee.
Rep. Ralph Regula (R-Ohio), who chairs the subcommittee that controls spending on education, health and jobs programs, recently stunned Democrats by announcing plans to reject every "earmarked" project they are seeking in the final, compromise version of the bill, which funds the departments of Education, Health and Human Services, and Labor.
His reason: When the House passed the bill on July 10, all 198 Democrats present voted against it, several of them saying it shortchanged education programs. The bill passed, 215 to 208.
Regula defended his decision in a letter to Rep. David R. Obey (Wis.), the committee's ranking Democrat, saying: "It is not unique for chairmen -- and ranking members, for that matter -- to use a member's support, or lack of it, as a factor in sorting through the thousands of program and project requests received during the year."
Last year's bill included 1,859 local projects -- sometimes called "pork" -- requested by House members, with a value of $896 million. By tradition, the projects have been divided fairly evenly between Republicans and Democrats.
Some say the rapid growth of such lawmaker-backed projects has injected a political element into the awarding of grants that are supposed to be based on merit and evenhanded formulas. Before Republicans took control of Congress in 1995, the Education-HHS-Labor bill was largely free of the earmarks.
But the decision by Regula, a moderate Republican with a history of working collegially with the other party, has infuriated Democrats. Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) called the action an "abuse of power." Obey said Democrats were being punished for voting their consciences in July.
And Hoyer said: "To tell the 130 million people represented by Democrats that they are shut out from getting health and education projects is consistent with the undemocratic, autocratic, confrontational process that's being followed by House Republicans."
But Regula has held his ground. He said in his letter to Obey that the several hundred million dollars initially set aside for Democratic projects will be directed to school-related programs across the country.
Hinting that the nine Republicans and one independent who voted against the bill would also go without their projects, he wrote: "I am certainly not trying to intimidate members."
But that is exactly what Democrats say Republicans are trying to do.
Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Tex.) and other House conservatives have long chafed at the clubby, bipartisan environment of the powerful Appropriations Committee, where Congress's constitutionally mandated power over the nation's purse strings resides.
Conservatives regularly brand the committee -- regardless of which party controls it -- as a big-spending body that frustrates all efforts to control the federal budget.
Regula has indicated he will seek the committee's chairmanship when Rep. C.W. "Bill" Young (R-Fla.) steps down in 2005. Democrats conjecture that Regula may be trying to show GOP colleagues he is fiscally conservative and tough enough to deserve their votes.
"I think Ralph Regula is a good person," Hoyer said. "I think he's been put in a position by a very hard-nosed caucus and by his own desire to make a statement."
Regula said in an interview: "In the final analysis, the chairman has a lot of decisions to make. On the other hand we're a team, and we reflect Republican policy."
The fight threatens to polarize a committee that has been an "oasis of decency and sanity," said Allen Schick, a fellow at the Brookings Institution.
No panel in Congress has been more closely identified with liberal Democratic priorities of the past 40 years than Regula's subcommittee. It funds the Head Start preschool program, federal aid to education, job training, aid to families unable to pay winter heating bills and other initiatives dating to President Lyndon B. Johnson's War on Poverty and Great Society agenda.
A Who's Who of top House Democrats serves on it. Pelosi was a member until recently. Hoyer, Obey, Nita Lowey (N.Y.), who chairs the party's campaign committee in the House, and her predecessor in that job, Patrick J. Kennedy (R.I.), serve on it. So do Reps. Jesse L. Jackson Jr. (Ill.), a high-profile black lawmaker, and Lucille Roybal-Allard (Calif.), a prominent Hispanic lawmaker.
Democrats say the real victims of Regula's policy will be the poor. Of the nation's 50 poorest congressional districts, 42 are represented by Democrats. Democrats say schools and community groups in these districts often need help from their member of Congress for worthwhile projects.
Hoyer had hoped to get $400, 000 -- the same as last year -- for a group called Rebuilding Together. The nonprofit organization works with volunteers to rehabilitate homes of the poor, elderly and disabled.
Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin (D-Md.) was seeking $2 million for the Sheppard Pratt Health System in Towson, and $560,000 for the Anne Arundel County Health Department to enhance bioterrorism preparations.
Other Maryland Democratic House members had asked for funds for improvements at the Holy Cross Hospital in Silver Spring, a community health facility in Baltimore County and the Aberdeen magnet high school.
But Regula signaled in his letter to Obey that he would not waver.
"I do believe that the House bill was a fair and balanced bill that deserved the support of members from both sides of the aisle," he wrote.
© 2003 The Washington Post Company