Columbus Fellowship Foundation lives on, illustrating budget struggles in Washington


Sen. Thad Cochran, R-Miss., arrives for the Senate Republicans' policy lunch in the Capitol on Tuesday, May 22, 2012. Cochran has been a champion of the Christopher Columbus Fellowship Foundation. (Bill Clark/CQ ROLL CALL)

It took up just three lines in Congress’s last big appropriations bill, on Page 123 out of 487. But it is a legend, a wonk’s campfire story — the government spending nobody could kill.

“For payment to the Christopher Columbus Fellowship Foundation . . . $450,000, to remain available until expended.”

This is a great survivor in the vast ecosystem of federal funding: a 20-year-old program that gives cash prizes for work in science. President Obama has called it inefficient and redundant. He and House Republicans — who agree on almost nothing — have tried to eliminate it.

Each time, however, it has been saved by a powerful friend in the Senate, Thad Cochran, the senior senator from Mississippi.

Now, Washington is enmeshed in another battle over spending. But the Columbus foundation shows how both parties are struggling to turn their hard-nosed rhetoric about austerity into action. After all, it would be hard to imagine a less painful cut than this one: a program with two full-time employees and bipartisan enemies.

And yet, it lives.

“Cutting . . . is actually a lot harder than people think,” said Rep. Jo Ann Emerson (R-Mo.), who made her own failed effort to kill the program last year.

In all, there have been seven explicit efforts to ax this program since Obama took office. The president has made four of them, asking for its demise in all of his official budgets.

Three Republicans have introduced legislation to end it. Besides Emerson, Sen. Tom Coburn (Okla.) filed a bill to enact Obama’s suggestion in 2011. And last year, the foundation was targeted by a program run by House GOP leaders: YouCut, in which online voters choose among possible spending reductions.

One week, voters picked the Columbus foundation.

“We have a serious budget deficit,” Rep. Paul A. Gosar (R-Ariz.) said in a Web video. He’d been assigned by the GOP to shepherd a bill to cut the foundation. “Spending on nice-sounding but unnecessary programs represents the low-hanging fruit of spending.”

All three bills failed.

Emerson’s and Coburn’s efforts sputtered out. Gosar’s measure died in committee, part of a broader fizzle for the YouCut program. Of the 36 cuts its voters chose, only eight got a vote in the full House, and just two became law in some form. The GOP, distracted by the debt ceiling, health care and other fights, missed its chance to compile a House-approved wish list of cuts-in-waiting.

An aide to Gosar said the congressman was not available for comment. He said Gosar does not plan on reintroducing the bill in this Congress.

All along, as Obama and these Republicans were making a show of trying to cut the foundation, another Republican, Cochran, was doing the quiet work necessary to keep it going.

On the Hill, aides said Cochran has repeatedly requested funding from Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.), who oversees appropriations for small government agencies.

Year after year, Durbin has agreed, and the full Senate has voted in favor.

When the Senate and the House have met to resolve differences in spending bills, House negotiators have given in on the foundation’s money. “If you’re in a major negotiation,” one Republican staffer explained, “that’s a bone that’s small enough to throw the Senate so you can get something back.”

The program is minuscule, at least in the big-number world of the federal budget.

Last year, the Columbus foundation offered $17,000 in awards for achievements in agricultural science, $17,000 for work in life sciences and $25,000 for research that aids homeland security.

It also runs a competition for middle-schoolers who use science to solve local problems. The top teams are flown to Walt Disney World for a week, and the winners get a $25,000 grant. Over the years, those students have been awarded six patents, for inventions including an under-seat storage system on school buses and a proposal to attach lights and a seat to walkers used by the elderly.

But in many cases, these are things the federal government is already doing.

The Army runs a strikingly similar program that asks teams of middle-schoolers to use science to solve local problems. Its finalists are flown to Washington.

Maria Lombardo, a Boston educator, chairs the Columbus foundation’s unpaid board, whose members are appointed by the president. Lombardo said the plan, someday, is to subsist on private donations. But not yet.

“Right now, we really need that support,” she said. “We’re not yet ready for that giant leap.”

In 1992, this was not how things were supposed to turn out.

“This program will be conducted at no cost to the nation’s taxpayers,” Rep. Frank Annunzio (D-Ill.), the congressional architect of the program, said then.

Annunzio’s plan for funding the foundation looked like this: The government would sell specially minted coins honoring Columbus on the 500th anniversary of his landing in 1492. The proceeds would fund a foundation in the great explorer’s name.

But the coins didn’t sell as well as hoped. Annunzio had thought they would raise $51.5 million. Only $7.6 million came in.

And 15 years later, it started to run out. The board went to Capitol Hill, hoping it could break Annunzio’s no-cost pledge.

“It’s sort of a national treasure, if you want to know the truth about it,” said James H. Herring, a lawyer who was the board’s vice chairman until recently. Herring is also a former chairman of the Mississippi Republican Party and has donated more than $28,000 to GOP causes, including $1,250 to Cochran’s campaigns, since 1989.

Annunzio couldn’t help secure funding. He had retired in 1993 and died in 2001. But the foundation, headquartered in a Democratic district in Upstate New York, found a powerful champion in a Republican senator from Mississippi. Until recently, Cochran was the top Republican on the Senate Appropriations Committee.

For fiscal 2008, Cochran requested $600,000 in new taxpayer money for the foundation. He got it, tucked into Page 176 of a 614-page spending bill.

A spokesman for Cochran said the senator supported the program long before Herring, a fellow Mississippi Republican, was placed on its board. Cochran, he said, believes that the program has merit and has produced “notable accomplishments.”

Cochran was unavailable for an interview this week.

Now, in Hill parlance, the foundation is “in the budget.” That’s a little like being in Congress: Once you’re in, it’s presumed that you’ll stay. The burden of proof falls heavily on those who want you out.

Still, people have tried.

“This Foundation has not demonstrated clear outcomes from its awards and has high overhead costs,” Obama said in his official budget proposal in 2009. He noted that the foundation spent 80 percent of its money on overhead and only 20 percent on awards.

It didn’t work. The foundation got $750,000 that year. Obama tried again in 2010; the foundation got $500,000. Then again in 2011; it got $450,000.

Now, the next round. On March 27, all government funding, including for the Columbus foundation, will run out. Republicans have called for new, deeper spending cuts.

Could the foundation be in danger again?

It has been headquartered in the Finger Lakes region of New York since 2000, when its executive director, Judith M. Shellenberger, a former Annunzio aide who makes $106,000 a year, moved the office from Northern Virginia to her home town, Auburn.

“We have a vast amount of support in both the House and Senate,” Shellenberger said. Asked to name some of those supporters, she replied: “I can’t think of anybody at this moment that I would point to . . . but definitely Senator Cochran has been a supporter.”

David A. Fahrenthold covers Congress for the Washington Post. He has been at the Post since 2000, and previously covered (in order) the D.C. police, New England, and the environment.
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