Jun 23 2008

Senate Panel Ups Ante on Byrne Grants

CQ Today

By Seth Stern

Senate appropriators pressed ahead last week with plans to increase law enforcement grant funding in their version of the fiscal 2009 Commerce-Justice-Science spending bill.

Under the legislation, so-called Byrne grants for local police would receive $581 million, which is $31 million more than in the House version of the bill and $411 million more than appropriated in fiscal 2008.

Overall, the Senate bill would provide $57.9 billion in discretionary spending, which is about $1.1 billion more than in the House version, $4.2 billion more than Bush requested and $6.1 billion more than enacted in the Commerce-Justice-Science portion of the fiscal 2008 omnibus spending package (PL 110-161).

Many appropriators and other lawmakers have wanted to increase Byrne grant funding. There were plans to give the program additional money for the remaining months of fiscal 2008, but the latest version of the supplemental war spending legislation (HR 2642) included none.

On a separate track, the House Judiciary Committee last week approved legislation (HR 3546) to reauthorize the Byrne program and provide it with $1.1 billion annually through fiscal 2012. (Story, p. 1718)

Eliminate Grants
The Bush administration has repeatedly attempted to eliminate the program or consolidate it with others. Although those efforts have not been successful, appropriations have never reached the authorized level of funding.

The appropriations measure was approved with little debate and no amendments beyond a manager’s amendment, a contrast to markups in recent years, which have been marked by heated debates over policy riders concerning firearms or English-only workplaces.

Democrat Barbara A. Mikulski of Maryland, chairwoman of the Commerce-Justice-Science Subcommittee, said she supported a potential investigation by the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee into allegations that favoritism might have played a role in the distribution of competitive Justice Department grants for law enforcement.

“I find this especially troubling at a time when we are fighting for more funding for Byrne grants for communities who are facing rising crime and fiscal hardships,” Mikulski said in a statement.

But Mikulski had said she was trying to keep policy riders out of the bill, including one that she pushed aggressively last year that would have allowed broader access to gun-trace data for civil lawsuits.

Mikulski’s colleagues on the House Commerce-Justice-Science Subcommittee said they also intended to ward off policy riders when they mark up their version of the bill.

“There was no collective decision,” Mikulski said. “It was based on our experience last year.” Mikulski had little success last year persuading her fellow appropriators to keep her gun language in the appropriations legislation.

The draft bill includes $9.4 billion for the Commerce Department, $700 million more than House appropriators included in their draft. Both versions include more money for the department than President Bush requested.

The Census Bureau, which is part of Commerce, would receive $3.2 billion of that $9.4 billion, or $550 million more than in the House bill but still $546 million less than the White House is requesting beyond its original budget plan.

Earlier in the week, Republican Richard C. Shelby of Alabama, the ranking member of the Senate Commerce-Justice-Science Subcommittee, said the money “was needed to begin to correct the gross mismanagement of the Census Bureau.”

The Bush administration revised its request earlier this month because census takers will use paper questionnaires, not handheld computers as planned, to gather information from residents who do not mail back forms — a decision that increases census costs by as much as $3 billion.

Both the Senate and House Appropriations committees said they received the request too late to include it in their spending bills.

NOAA, NASA and Justice
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), also part of Commerce, would receive $4.5 billion of the department’s allocation, or $200 million more than in the House bill, $549 million more than in fiscal 2008 and $342 million more than Bush requested.

Senate appropriators from coastal states have traditionally sought more money for NOAA than have their colleagues in the House. That difference has narrowed since Democrats regained the majority, as more House Democrats also represent coastal regions.

The Justice Department would receive $25.8 billion in the Senate measure, which is $400 million more than in the House bill, $2.7 billion more than in Bush’s request and $2.2 billion more than in fiscal 2008.

NASA would receive $17.8 billion, the same as in the House bill, $505 million more than in fiscal 2008 and $200 million more than requested. The House passed a fiscal 2009 NASA reauthorization bill (HR 6063) authorizing $19.2 billion on June 18.