Inside the Senate Appropriations Committee
Article I, Section 9, Clause 7 of the Constitution provides that "No Money shall be drawn from the Treasury, but in Consequence of Appropriations made by Law." Translated into English, this means that Congress has the “power of the purse,” the authority to decide how your tax dollars will be allocated to the various federal programs.
The House and Senate Appropriations Committees have jurisdiction over this process. Since there are 12 spending bills there are 12 appropriations subcommittees, each charged with writing one appropriations bill that provides funding for agencies, departments, and programs within the subcommittee’s purview. For instance, the Interior Appropriations Subcommittee annually decides how much money will be allocated to the Land and Water Conservation Fund’s (LWCF) State Assistance program.
Early in the appropriations process, subcommittees hold hearings in which agency officials are called upon to justify their request and answer any questions the committee members may have about the agency’s budget request. The subcommittees also receive written testimony from outside organizations, such as NRPA, and will occasionally invite representatives from various interest groups to testify to aid them in drafting the appropriations bill. During the appropriations process appropriators are especially interested in hearing from constituents about how programs impact local communities within their state or district.
Subcommittee members are, in essence, subject matter experts on the various programs that are funded through their committee’s bill. They are more familiar with how the various programs within the committee’s bill work than Congress as a whole. Each subcommittee is led by a Chairman from the majority party and a Ranking Member from the minority party. For instance, currently in the Senate, Senators Jack Reed (D-RI) and Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) serve as the Chairman and Ranking Member and in the House of Representatives Mike Simpson (R-ID) and Jim Moran (D-VA) are the Chairman and Ranking Member for the Interior Appropriations Subcommittees.
The work of the subcommittees is instrumental to the appropriations process and having members on the committee who believe in the programs of interest to your organization is critical to securing annual funding. Fortunately for NRPA, Senators Reed and Murkowski are both long-time advocates for the LWCF State Assistance program.
We recently had an opportunity to sit down with Senator Murkowski to talk to her about her role as the Ranking Member and as a champion for the LWCF State Assistance program.
Currently, Democrats hold the majority in the Senate and the subcommittee is comprised of nine Democrats and seven Republicans. How closely do you work with Senator Reed to write the Interior appropriations bill and what is your role as the Ranking Member in that process?
Murkowski: My staff and I work very closely with Chairman Reed during the appropriations process. We meet to discuss the priorities that we both have, and we have numerous hearings with the agencies under our jurisdiction where we ask both budget and policy related questions that help us make important decisions about how to allocate funding among the many priorities in the Interior bill. This past year, I also hosted Senator Reed along with Secretary Salazar in Alaska to show both of them the programs in the bill that are important to me and to all Alaskans.
How important are local outdoor recreational resources to the people of Alaska, and how has the LWCF State Assistance program benefitted the citizens of the state?
Murkowski: Having been born and raised in Alaska, I share the passion my fellow Alaskans have for the outdoors. Our state is full of wonderful opportunities to get outside and explore nature. Too often Alaskans see access to federally owned land in the state restricted. The State Assistance program has been successful in Alaska because it’s about land for use by Alaskans. The program has provided roughly $34,198,938 to 279 projects in Alaska since 1965.
For FY12, the House Interior Appropriations Subcommittee provided only $2 million for the LWCF State Assistance program while the Senate’s draft bill provided $45 million. In conference the Senate number prevailed. You were instrumental to securing the FY12 funding. Can you tell us about the conference process and why you fought so hard to protect LWCF State Assistance funding in FY12?
Murkowski: The FY12 conference process was somewhat unusual because of the vast difference–almost $2 billion in total–between the House bill and the Senate draft bill. Once Congress was able to negotiate spending levels during the debt-ceiling negotiations, we were able to fund the State Assistance program at the higher level. I’m extremely pleased that the Senate number prevailed in conference because of the important role the State Assistance program has played for over 40 years in outdoor recreation and land preservation throughout our country. The great thing about the State Assistance program is the one-to-one match that is received for every dollar of federal investment and the flexible project opportunities it allows. While nearly two-thirds of Alaska is federally owned (which is sometimes a source of consternation), I realize there are many states with minimal federal ownership. The program allows state and local governments, along with local partners, to create outdoor recreation opportunities for citizens in virtually any part of every state. That’s not a hard thing to support.
As appropriators are going through the annual appropriations process, how important is it for appropriators to hear from constituents and what type of information is helpful for constituents to provide?
Murkowski: It’s extremely important to hear from constituents and state leaders each year on every public policy issue, and the State Assistance program is no exception. I would like to say that every member of Congress knows everything about every single issue or program, but that’s not the case. We need to be reminded of the benefits (or drawbacks in some cases) and updated on recent projects occurring in our states.
In January 2013, across the board agency cuts are scheduled to take place as a result of the debt ceiling legislation enacted in 2011. What impact will this have on the work of appropriations subcommittees for FY13?
Murkowski: I think we all recognize from last year that tough choices will have to be made when it comes to our work on the appropriations committee. We will have to do more oversight to ensure that the programs that we fund are working as efficiently as possible. Simply put, the government is going to have to figure out how to do more with less money. That is something that virtually every American family can understand in these difficult times. It will be a challenge but I look forward to working with Senator Reed to craft the most responsible Interior bill that serves the needs of the American people.
Stacey Pineis NRPA Vice President of Government Affairs.