DeLauro watching GOP reverse course of subcommittee she headed

WASHINGTON–Rep. Rosa DeLauro shook her head in quiet disbelief, as the House Appropriations Committee approved a provision that, in her view, amounted to a sneak attack on the Food and Drug Administration.

Moments before, DeLauro had argued vehemently against the amendment, which requires the FDA to use so-called “hard science” in issuing new regulations. She called the amendment a back-door effort to undercut the FDA’s authority to issue tough food and drug rules, particularly when it comes to tobacco products.

“It is meant to curtail the breadth of scientific evidence that the FDA” can consider, DeLauro said, pleading with her colleagues to defeat the proposal.

But the amendment’s author, Rep. Dennis Rehberg, said it was just a straightforward effort to curb federal regulatory overreach. And the committee easily approved his proposal, leaving DeLauro and other Democrats fuming.

Last year at this time, DeLauro wielded the chairman’s gavel on the House Agriculture Subcommittee. The 3rd District Democrat used her post to pump up federal funding for rural development, food safety, and agriculture research–and to swat away proposals like Rehberg’s.

Now, she’s watching a new chairman, Jack Kingston, a Republican from Georgia, unravel her spending handiwork. The agriculture spending bill approved by the Appropriations Committee on Tuesday night represents an about-face in funding priorities compared to what DeLauro embraced during her short tenure at the helm of the ag spending panel.

The measure would provide $125.5 billion for discretionary and mandatory agriculture programs funding–$7 billion less than what President Barack Obama asked for this year and $2.7 billion less than fiscal year 2011 spending levels. The House GOP plan calls for trimming the budgets of several major agencies, including the Food and Drug Administration and the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

And it takes aim at key domestic programs, cutting nearly $35 million from the federal Food Safety and Inspection Service, almost $98 million from research and education, and nearly $100 million from conservation programs. Perhaps most stinging for DeLauro is the committee’s call to slice $133 million from rural development programs, which DeLauro made a major priority during her time at the helm of the committee.

“It’s very difficult,” DeLauro said, when asked about watching the new House Republican majority reverse the spending increases and fresh investments she put in place.

An 11-term veteran of the House, DeLauro knows full well what it’s like to serve in the minority. But when it comes to her position on the appropriations committee, she’s not just stripped of her gavel and relegated to the minority. She’s also, like other lawmakers, adjusting to a new reality, in which the once powerful spending committee is operating in a tough fiscal climate.

The Appropriations Committee has been among the most coveted assignments in Congress. Lawmakers in both parties have used the panel to dole out millions of dollars in home-state projects and to lavish federal funds on favored programs.

Not anymore. With public anxiety and political attention zeroed in on the nation’s annual deficits, the panel’s focus has pivoted 180 degrees-from padding bills with earmarks and increases to thinning them with cuts and limits.

“It’s definitely not a glory position anymore,” said Steve Ellis, vice president of Taxpayers for Common Sense, a nonpartisan fiscal watchdog group. “You don’t get the bacon to bring home and brag about… You also don’t have people come to you on bended knee and kiss the ring.”

Still, “it’s no less critical,” Ellis said of a seat on the committee.

“Arguably when you are in a budget-cutting situation, you’re the last person on the wall. You are there to try to defend certain priorities,” he said. “Your role in a lot of ways becomes more critical than it was when you were just handing out candy.”

In the House, though, there’s only so much you can do when you’re on defense. The majority controls virtually everything–from the top line number that each spending subcommittee is allotted for its various federal programs, to which initiatives will see an increase and which won’t.

You can offer amendments and make arguments. But “when you don’t have the votes, you don’t have the votes,” DeLauro said simply.

DeLauro said the House GOP has used their new power to go after agencies and regulations they’ve long opposed, such as tighter food safety rules and strong environmental initiatives.

“This bill is not good for rural development, for conservation,” DeLauro said during a break from the committee’s 4-hour mark up on Tuesday evening. “This bill cuts agricultural research at universities, which are looking at new and better ways for production of crops and… problems with pests.”

Among her biggest concerns, she said, is the fate of a sweeping food safety bill passed during last Congress. The FDA will need increased resources–to the tune of $1.4 billion–to put that law into place, but House Republicans were not eager to plump up that agency’s budget.  Instead, they slated the FDA’s budget for an 11.5 percent cut from fiscal year 2011 levels.

“They decimated an agency in the past, and they’re looking to do that again,” DeLauro said.

Republicans called past spending increases for the FDA, put in place under DeLauro and her predecessors, “unsustainable,” and said a new era of fiscal restraint was needed for that agency and others.

Kingston, DeLauro’s successor as the Agriculture Appropriations chairman, said the Connecticut congresswoman was a very effective leader of the panel. But, he said, “I do think that there were some corrections that needed to be made.”

Asked about her contention that he and others are slashing the investments she put in place, Kingston said, “I will quote her president… Elections have consequences.”

“Under my leadership the committee’s going to go in a different direction,” he added.

He said he plans to keep some changes she put in place, such as longer hearings. He said the subcommittee used to have relatively perfunctory sessions. But DeLauro instituted a process where lawmakers got to ask witnesses two or even three rounds of questions, with the hearings often lasting several hours.

“We’d call the witnesses back until everyone was satisfied,” he said. “A lot of times at the end of the day it was just Rosa and me” and one weary witness left in the room.

DeLauro dismissed the notion that the Appropriations Committee has changed in terms of power or clout. She noted that it holds significant sway in setting priorities and it’s a hot-bed of major policy fights. Although she’s no longer chairs the ag committee, she now is the ranking Democrat on the spending subcommittee that oversees labor, health and human services programs. And she noted that panel is the main venue for the current fight over health reform, with Republicans trying to block money for implementation of the law.

And Kingston said that even in the minority, DeLauro will find ways to influence the spending process. Indeed, although she lost the vote on Rehberg’s FDA amendment, she won one small victory on Tuesday.

The panel approved a DeLauro amendment to increase funding for Women, Infants and Children (WIC), a food assistance program for low-income mothers, by $147 million. Her amendment called for paying for the WIC increase with a cut to cotton subsidies.

“Rosa remains an extremely effective legislator,” said Kingston. “Trust me, her fingerprints and foot prints are all over that legislation and they will be for many years.”