* Powerful Senator Mikulski has big say over big money
* Dueling for dollars in era of declining budgets
By Richard Cowan
WASHINGTON, March 22 (Reuters) - Many members of Congress looked pretty helpless this week as they fought to save cherished programs in their states from across-the-board budget cuts.
But after Congress wrapped up work on a bill to fund the government through September, some members looked less helpless than others. Among them was Senate Appropriations Committee Chairwoman Barbara Mikulski, a Democrat from Maryland.
Neither Mikulski nor Congress as a whole saved any agency from the $85 billion in cuts known as the “sequestration.” But thanks to the committee she leads, some programs based in Maryland emerged better off this week than they were the week before:
* The government’s Agricultural Research Service, based in Beltsville, Maryland, got a billion dollars for agricultural research.
* The Coast Guard yard where ships are maintained in Curtis Bay, Maryland, just outside Baltimore; 600 military and civilian workers will be funded for the rest of this fiscal year thanks to $18.5 million allocated to it in the funding bill.
* The National Institutes of Health, the famed medical research facility based in Bethesda, Maryland, which got about $71 million more this year than the previous year.
* The National Institute of Standards and Technology, which got an increase of $43 million for labs and technical research, among other things. NIST is headquartered in Gaithersburg, Maryland.
* The Food and Drug Administration, in Rockville, Maryland, which got a total of $2.5 billion, about the same as last year.
* NASA, the space program, funded at $17.5 billion, with a big slice of it going to the agency’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Beltsville, Maryland.
While they got funding from the committee, the agencies were still trying to figure out the precise gains in their budgets.
Asked about her results by Reuters, she said through a spokeswoman: “The good news is that Congress came together...preventing a (government) shutdown,” Mikulski said. “In Maryland, that means NIH, NSA, FDA, NIST, Social Security and the other critical agencies are open and continuing their missions protecting national and community security and meeting compelling human needs.”
While not a “redo” of the across-the-board sequestration - the total spending for the government is largely unchanged - the bill to fund the government (and prevent a shutdown) was a chance to do some rearranging, and the Appropriations Committee did.
These are not “earmarks” - the special gifts from members to specific projects often shrouded in secrecy. The programs Mikulski’s committee aided benefit Americans well beyond the borders of Maryland and the extra money they got was appropriated in full public view.
Other members had success too. Republican Senator Roy Blunt of Missouri and Democratic Senators Mark Pryor of Arkansas and Christopher Coons of Delaware introduced the amendment that gave some relief to meat inspectors, who were going to be furloughed en masse due to the sequestration. All represent states with beef or poultry industries.
Many more failed, like Senator Jerry Moran, a Kansas Republican, who delayed Senate action on the continuing budget resolution in an unsuccessful effort to preserve air control towers operated by contract at small airports.
And Mikulski is not running away from her success. On the contrary, she issued press releases and statements.
“Mikulski Fights to Protect Jobs at U.S. Coast Guard Yard at Curtis Bay,” said one.
“The Coast Guard Yard at Curtis Bay employs more than 600 military and civilian personnel,” it said. “These federal funds will ensure that the Coast Guard can continue to do the work that is so crucial to America’s homeland security and the economic security of Maryland.”
Mikulski’s state stands to lose a lot more than many others so she had more to protect. Maryland is where the federal money is.
Federal funds flow heavily to states like Maryland and Virginia because that is where many of the federal agencies are located, just outside of the nation’s capital.
These have been tough times for federal workers in states like Maryland, where they have endured back-to-back years of pay freezes and the threat of temporary layoffs as they get caught in the crossfire of Washington’s budget wars.
“It’s a case of where it’s maybe not as bad as under earmarks,” said Steve Ellis, vice president of Taxpayers for Common Sense. Nonetheless, powerful members of Congress still have an outsized say over spending, Ellis said.