Congress has yet to pass the $91 billion bill to fund veterans, environment, housing and space programs in the new fiscal year, and the measure may never pass if work on the domestic budget is postponed until next year.
But that hasn't stopped lawmakers from taking credit for dozens of local projects that are stuffed into a preliminary version of the bill approved this month by the House Appropriations Committee.
"Knollenberg Secures Federal Funds for SSO Demonstration Project That Could Save Local Taxpayers Hundreds of Millions of Dollars," trumpeted an Oct. 15 news release on the Web site of Rep. Joe Knollenberg (R-Mich.).
"The Boys and Girls Club of Spokane will get federal help in their quest for a new clubhouse," announced Rep. George R. Nethercutt (R-Wash.). "Rep. Bonilla Announces $675,000 Funding for Laredo," declared a release from Rep. Henry Bonilla (R-Tex.).
None of the statements mentioned that the measure has not been passed by the House or reworked during negotiations with the Senate.
In most years, projects earmarked by appropriations committees have triumphed in a Darwinian competition with dozens of others, and they have a good chance of becoming law.
But this year could be different. With the White House and Congress deadlocked over spending priorities, some key lawmakers have urged that action be postponed on 11 stalled appropriations bills until well after a new Congress convenes in January.
That could result in passage of stripped-down legislation to fund federal departments for the remainder of the fiscal year. But hundreds of local water, sewer, highway and other projects earmarked by lawmakers could be dropped, according to House Appropriations Committee spokesman John Scofield. "All bets are off if we punt to March," Scofield said.
Another uncertainty results from the White House Budget Office's decision to target Congress's practice of earmarking projects for districts and states of appropriations committee members. The spending bill for veterans affairs and housing and urban development (VA-HUD) that was approved by the House Appropriations Committee on Oct. 9 includes 568 "community development" projects requested by members. It also directs the Environmental Protection Agency to provide 345 water and sewer grants to towns and cities.
GOP fiscal conservatives have proved as adept as some liberals at winning home state projects. Rep. Tom Latham is an Iowa Republican who "not only talks the talk but walks the walk when it comes to spending controls," according to an Iowa newspaper cited on the congressman's Web site. But Latham, facing a tight reelection race, recently took credit for helping to secure $200,000 for environmental restoration around Clear Lake and Fort Dodge, Iowa, along with $5 million for biotechnology research at Iowa colleges and laboratories.
Indeed, this year's budgetary uncertainties have not deterred members of both parties from issuing a string of upbeat statements.
The Oct. 15 news release from Knollenberg, a five-term congressman facing a tough reelection fight in Michigan's 9th District, announced that he had "secured $1.5 million in federal funding" to use drainage basins to keep untreated storm and sanitary sewers from overflowing into local waterways. The release said the funding was "included in the Fiscal Year 2003 VA-HUD Appropriations Act."
A spokesman, Christopher Close, said: "We don't put out things like that lightly. We feel confident that when we return in November, we will get this appropriations bill done and our projects will be in there." Knollenberg, he said, would be "right at the table" during a conference with the Senate to ensure that the Michigan drainage project stays in the bill.
Bonilla's Oct. 9 news release announced that he had "successfully secured" $675,000 for Texas A&M International University and $450,000 for the Mercy Health System "as a result of Bonilla's senior position on the Appropriations Committee."
"It's our way of letting people know that the congressman is working for them," said Bonilla spokeswoman Taryn Fritz. She said it was "absolutely a possibility" that the fiscal 2003 funding for the projects could be lost if the budget impasse is not resolved. But she expressed hope that all the projects would survive.
Some other lawmakers, while touting projects in the bill, provided more details about the legislative hurdles ahead. On Oct. 10, Rep. John E. Sununu (R-N.H.), in the midst of a toss-up race for the Senate, announced that the House Appropriations Committee, on which he serves, had approved $3.5 million for his state in the VA-HUD bill. This included earmarks for sewers and storm drains for Manchester and Portsmouth, $400,000 for improvements to Exeter's drinking water system and $700,000 for improvements to the Emerging Technology Center at New Hampshire Community Technical College in Pease. But he noted that the bill needs to clear the House floor.
"Until that bill is signed, nothing is guaranteed," acknowledged Rep. Robert Aderholt (R), one of three Alabamans on the House Appropriations Committee. But an Oct. 9 news release from his office, issued a day after the panel reported out the VA-HUD bill, may have left some confusion. "Congressman Robert Aderholt today announced the funding of many projects throughout the Fourth Congressional District," including water system upgrades in Cullman County and renovations at the Collinsville Public Library, it said.
Only in the final paragraph was it noted that the bill must be reconciled with the Senate version and voted on by both houses before being forwarded to the president for his signature.