As the House reaches a crucial point in consideration of major spending bills, the Republican leadership is trying to win desperately needed votes by including hundreds of pork-barrel projects in legislation that cuts spending on key domestic programs.
A $70.5 billion spending bill for the departments of Veterans Affairs and Housing and Urban Development includes 215 provisions funding a range of activities requested by individual lawmakers, including research into windstorms and animal waste management, the renovation of a local fire station, experiments in extreme weather conditions, a machine aimed at growing plants in space, and ship-bottom painting.
The number of such projects, nearly double that in the same bill a year ago, is testimony to the extraordinarily difficult political situation facing House GOP leaders as they labor to craft a spending plan that stays within tight budget restrictions.
Architects of the VA-HUD bill, while defending many of the projects, acknowledged that they included them to help secure passage of the measure when it comes to the floor next week. But the proposals drew sharp criticism from conservative lawmakers and liberal interest groups alike, who raised questions about the bill's spending priorities.
"If we're serious about the size of government, moving chairs around the deck or balls on the table that contain the same number of dollars doesn't do anything," said Mark Sanford (R-S.C.), a fierce conservative. "The idea of sweetening the recipe with special projects in members' districts -- sure it may result in passage, but it also results in a really frustrated right base. What they end up saying is, `If there is a difference between Republicans and Democrats, I don't know what it is.' "
Rep. James T. Walsh (R-N.Y.), who chairs the House Appropriations subcommittee on VA, HUD and independent agencies, said spreading the money to programs across the country is a justifiable "tactic" aimed at bolstering his bill's chances for passage. But he also defended the projects' value.
"I can honestly say these are the higher-priority projects. There may be some that don't meet muster," Walsh said. "Am I going to get everybody's votes who had a project? I don't think so, but I hope so, because they have a stake in the bill."
Lawmakers and congressional aides said such tactics have become necessary as Congress begins to tackle some of the largest and most controversial spending measures. To stay within strict overall budget limits and accommodate an increase in defense funding, lawmakers are finding it necessary to slash spending on popular domestic programs -- endangering passage of such bills when they reach the House and Senate floors.
This week, for instance, members of Walsh's panel voted to cut NASA funding by 10 percent, prompting outrage from lawmakers with space facilities in states such as California, Florida and Maryland. The panel also made smaller cuts in key housing programs, reducing public housing spending by $515 million compared with last year.
The Senate has yet to even begin voting on its version of the legislation, so it is unclear whether it will include such specified requests. Both chambers must ultimately reconcile their bills.
While the amount of money devoted in the VA-HUD bill to "earmarks" -- programs not requested in the president's budget -- remains roughly the same as last year, the number of projects has nearly doubled. They benefit Democrats and Republicans, and touch on regions from the Florida Keys to Yellowstone National Park.
Lawmakers bombarded Walsh with hundreds of requests this year, arguing that their communities deserved to be singled out for attention.
Rep. Owen B. Pickett (D-Va.) obtained $1 million for a project in his district to reduce the environmental damage caused by paint on the bottom of ships, while Rep. Larry Combest (R-Tex.) secured $1 million for the "Garden Machine" at Texas Tech, a NASA unit raising plants under difficult conditions in the hopes of fostering plant growth on long-term space missions.
House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) received three separate grants for his district, including $7.5 million in drinking water improvements in his home town of Yorkville and surrounding cities; a $2 million increase for the Neutron Therapy Facility at Fermilab in Batavia; and $2 million for the establishment of a NASA-Illinois Technology Commercialization Center in Dupage County Research Park.
Other influential Republicans benefit under the legislation. Rep. Jerry Lewis (R-Calif.), who chaired the panel last Congress, was able to keep funding programs on issues ranging from earthquakes to space radiation. Walsh made sure funds flow to upstate New York, including $10 million for earth sciences research at the Regional Application Center in Cayuga County and $1.5 million for continued work on water quality management plans for Onandaga and Cayuga counties.
"Our economy's in tough shape right now, so we're not bashful at all in helping our own state," Walsh said, adding that the projects are environmentally sound and that New York has funded projects in other states in the past.
He acknowledged that Republicans also bowed to political realities in some sections of the bill: "There are individual members we have to help, freshman Republicans," Walsh noted.
Rep. Robin Hayes (R-N.C.), who faces a difficult reelection battle, received continued funding for an emergency "staging area" at the Stanly County airport in preparation for a possible disaster. Two-term Rep. Rick Hill (R-Mont.), who also faces a tough race, received $2 million for Montana State University research on the impact of extreme temperatures on living organisms and $1 million for a state emergency communications center at Fort Harrison.
Walsh said Republicans hewed to the same spending limits endorsed by President Clinton and avoided what he called the president's gimmicks, such as postponing $4.2 billion in housing spending until the next fiscal year.
But advocates for the poor said the money for special projects comes at the expense of housing programs for people with AIDS and community development grants.
"It's ridiculous. I frankly don't think the American public thinks it's a good idea," said Sheila Crowley, president of the National Low-Income Housing Coalition. "For heaven sakes, we can't afford to put a few more dollars in homeless programs?"
The GOP's approach also poses a dilemma for Democrats such as Rep. Carrie P. Meek (Fla.), who has spent three years lobbying for a windstorm simulation project at Florida International University in Miami that could help predict future hurricanes.
"It's pork to some people, but to me it's a necessity," Meek said, adding that she is inclined to support the bill because it helps her district but remains concerned about less funding for seniors' housing nationwide. "I'm sort of torn now as to what I should do."
But even $2 million for wastewater infrastructure improvements in the Gary Sanitary District is not enough to satisfy fellow Appropriations Committee Democrat Peter J. Visclosky (Ind.), who is still concerned about the bill's cuts to domestic programs.
"All of us have to take a step back from parochial issues we need and look at the broader picture," Visclosky said. "My sense is we'll end up opposing the bill."
Here are some of the items in the $70 billion Veterans Affairs -- Housing and Urban Development spending bill that is moving to the House floor.
* "Garden machine" at Texas Tech in Lubbock, aimed at growing plants in space.
Cost: $1 million
Sponsor: Rep. Larry Combest (R-Tex.)
* Drinking water infrastructure improvements: DeKalb, Yorkville, Elburn, Batavia, Oswego and Geneva, Ill.
Cost: $7.5 million
Sponsor: House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.)
* Continued work on water quality management plans for Onandaga and Cayuga counties in New York.
Cost: $1.5 million
Sponsor: Rep. James T. Walsh (R-N.Y.)
* Neutron Therapy Facility at Fermilab in Batavia, Ill.
Cost: $2 million increase
* Animal waste management research at Purdue University.
Cost: $1 million
Sponsor: Rep. Steve Buyer (R-Ind.)
* Emergency "staging area" at Stanly County, N.C., airport.
Cost: $1 million
Sponsor: Rep. Robin Hayes (R-N.C.)
* Windstorm simulation project at Florida International University in Miami.
Cost: $2.5 million
Sponsor: Rep. Carrie P. Meek (D-Fla.)
* Seismic retrofit project at the University of Redlands in Redlands, Calif.
Cost: $2 million
Sponsor: Rep. Jerry Lewis (R-Calif.)
* Research on tributyltin-based ship bottom paints at Old Dominion University in Norfolk.
Sponsor: Rep. Owen B. Pickett (D-Va.)
* Repair and construction of Tracy Fire Station No. 1 in Tracy, Calif.
Cost: $1.2 million
Sponsor: Rep. Richard N. Pombo (R-Calif.)
* Center on life in extreme thermal environments at Montana State University in Bozeman.
Cost: $2 million
Sponsor: Rep. Rick Hill (R-Mont.)