Working the hill

How agencies can find the middle ground between Congress and the White House

When it comes to money, Congress is the final arbiter. What are the ins and outs of making the case for funding once the president's budget request goes to the Hill?

To find out, GCN asked Stanley Collender, managing director of the Washington office of Financial Dynamics Business Communications, to talk about the funding game from the Hill's point of view.

Collender has worked on both the House and Senate budget committees. As a member of the House Budget Committee staff, he served as administrator of the task force on state and local government. For the Senate Budget Committee, he was responsible for analyzing Defense spending. Collender also is the author of The Guide to the Federal Budget series (Century Foundation Press). Staff writer Jason Miller and associate editor Richard W. Walker interviewed Collender by phone.

GCN: Once the president's budget request goes to Congress, what are the biggest challenges overall for agencies when it comes to convincing the Hill to spend the money?

Collender: The biggest challenge is that federal agencies are constantly caught in the middle. Agencies are in a difficult position because they're bound to support the administration's priorities, even when those priorities may not necessarily be good for the agency involved. Doing anything other than that is basically committing political suicide and risking the administration's wrath. You may be able to get some short-term gains by getting Congress to go along with you, but you'll do it at the cost of closer scrutiny by the Office of Management and Budget.

It's a very difficult position. On the one hand, you're there to represent your programs and your constituencies. On the other hand, you're there to represent the administration's priorities. And they're not always the same.

GCN: What are some of the mistakes agencies make when the budget request goes to the Hill?

Collender: Agencies are absolutely bound to support the president's budget, but if they don't recognize the propensities, the interests, the priorities of the appropriations subcommittee'if they don't recognize where that subcommittee is coming from'they could easily find themselves angering both the administration and the appropriations subcommittee.

The biggest mistake that a typical agency makes is they don't understand fully the political nature of the environment in which they're operating.

An example would be not providing the subcommittee with the information it's requesting because you think it goes counter to what the White House wants you to do. There's nothing that would get a committee angrier.

A second example of that would be supporting the president's budget in a way that makes it very clear that you don't really support the president's budget. That happens a lot, unfortunately. Then suddenly the story is not the budget request. It's the agency not supporting the budget request. That will come back to haunt that agency for months, if not years, to come.

The third aspect of that would be sacrificing the long-term benefits or costs to the agency for short-term gains. That is, for example, to push for an extra 3 percent increase in your budget even though you are going to engender such hard feelings that it will cost you big-time going forward. Don't forget, OMB can always get back at you. And they typically do.

GCN: When agencies don't understand the political climate, is that the fault of the agency'the secretary or whoever is in charge of the budget'or is it more that they are blind or unaware?

Collender: It's a little bit of both. I'm not sure I would separate the two. It could be a variety of things. The question is, what direction are you getting from your agency head? Is the White House giving you mixed signals or not giving you any signals? Or do the agency civil servants drafting the testimony have a tin ear to what Congress is going to want to hear?

Don't forget, most testimony is still delivered by a political appointee, who is likely to have some political awareness. The problem is supporting the testimony, the backup material.

GCN: What are some of the things the subcommittees look for in the backup materials?

Collender: [On the negative side] they are looking for hyperbole, unsupported statements, political spin and most of all numbers that don't make any sense. You can say whatever you want if the numbers add up. But if the numbers don't add up or if you've employed some gimmick that's never been tried before, then you lose credibility with the appropriations committee staff, who, when it comes down to it, are just trying to get the numbers right.

When I was on the budget committee staff, if we got the president's budget, the agency backup materials and testimony from an agency head and we couldn't cross-reference any of the numbers, we said, 'Is this the gang that couldn't shoot straight?'

When that happens, the agency loses all kinds of credibility.

The other thing is, if you cut a deal with the appropriations subcommittee the year before, or if the subcommittee had in the previous year's appropriations bill that you should do something, you damn well better have done it. You'd be surprised how many times that doesn't happen or [agencies] ignore it.

It takes a long time to get that kind of credibility back, because they won't trust you again. Suddenly, the appropriation language becomes a lot tighter, the controls on the agency become a lot more strict, the oversight becomes much more intense, and this is one of those things where you've sacrificed long-term well-being for a few short-term gains.

GCN: So all of this is basically about credibility?

Collender: If they don't like what you're requesting, it's not going to help a whole lot. But it's better at least to have numbers that add up.

The other thing is, there had better not be any surprises. One of the things the agencies do a lot is surprise their subcommittees when they send a request up. There should be constant communication so that by the time the request gets to the Hill, the subcommittes should have a feel for what's going to happen.

I'm not saying you give them an early warning ahead of [the budget release], but once the budget comes out, and as the year goes along, you want to continue to keep them updated. Otherwise, it's an adversarial proposition and you don't want that.

When you think about it, the appropriations subcommittee basically is there to do something good for you. They support the agency for the most part.

Here's another example of where your allegiances as an agency pull you in different directions. On the one hand, you'd like to have a warm, close relationship with your appropriations subcommittee. On the other hand, if it's too close and too warm, the White House goes nuts'any White House, it doesn't make any difference which one. The administration wants to feel that you work for them, not that you work for Congress. The truth is, under the Constitution, you're responsible to both of them.

GCN: How much of a role do the administration's priorities play during the budget discussions once the request goes up to the Hill?

Collender: I'm going to answer this two ways. On the one hand, 95 percent or more of what the president submits to Congress is going to get funded almost exactly the way the president submits it. Congress just doesn't have the time, the staff or the inclination to go over everything in great detail, especially some of the nuts-and-bolts decisions that affect the agencies.

When you get down to the program level, generally speaking, Congress will only get involved in something in great detail when there's a scandal, the program is not operating well, the program is highly controversial or the program represents a major change.

But the fact that 95 percent of what the president submits will eventually get funded doesn't mean that Congress doesn't have the ability to draft its own priorities, which it does. Don't forget, Congress is the one with the power of the purse.

GCN: You mentioned that basic communications skills were part of this. Can relationships with the Hill be developed, and to what extent do agencies have to be careful because they can't lobby?

Collender: Agencies can't lobby but they can provide information so that Congress can make informed decisions.

The best example I ever saw about this was some years ago. The budget director at the National Institutes of Health had a rule: If anybody from Capitol Hill calls with a request for information, you have to get back to them that day [either with the information or] with a request to explain why it may take a little longer. NIH was very responsive to requests for information. You can't lobby but you certainly can be responsive.

Personal relationships on Capitol Hill are everything, not just for members of Congress but also for staff. There are various ways of providing information. Instead of going up to the Hill and volunteering it, you can arrange to be asked for certain information.

For example, if I'm an agency director and I'm going to deliver testimony on the Hill, I would have my congressional liaison person ask the [subcommittee] chairman, 'What is it you'd like us to be prepared to answer? What's of most concern to you? And, by the way, while I'm up there, it wouldn't be bad if you asked us about this project.'

GCN: What else can agencies can do to cultivate relationships with subcommittee heads and staff?

Collender: If you're opening an office in a chairman's district or you've announced a new grant to someone in a chairman's state, let them know what's going on or invite them to participate somehow. You may have to do it through the White House congressional liaison. And certainly, if there's a report coming out or some information that the chairman should have, you'd better make sure he or she gets it.

Some of these things can be positive or negative. If you're going to be laying off 20 percent of your workforce, you don't want to surprise that member's district office.

GCN: What's the attitude on the Hill about new ways of funding programs, such as cross-agency funding?

Collender: The problem with [cross-agency funding] is that when it crosses agencies, it may also cross subcommittees. And then the question is, who's in control of the project? Who's actually dictating what the project is going to do?

Congressional committees hate losing control over anything. It's always going to be a problem once you go across subcommittee lines like that. The ultimate sin: One subcommittee turns you down for a project and you end up getting the money from another subcommittee through the back door, say, through [cross-agency funding]. Talk about annoying members of Congress'that's really high up on the list.

GCN: Would you recommend finding ways to share projects with agencies that don't cross subcommittee lines?

Collender: That's the easiest way to do it, rather than duplicating efforts.

GCN: How do budget impasses in Congress affect agency projects, and can agencies do anything about them?

Collender: The best example of this was 1995-96 when we had two government shutdowns.

Does it affect government operations? You bet. Not just the shutdowns themselves, but constantly preparing for shutdowns. How many times did agencies go through exercises where they are shutting down or getting ready to shut down?

The other problem is when you're operating under a continuing resolution because Congress can't figure out what it actually wants to appropriate. As a result, you don't get your full appropriation until February. Now you suddenly have to hurry up and spend the extra money that's in your full appropriation that wasn't included in your CR. It's a terrible way to operate a railroad.

The truth is, for the average member of Congress, the effect of what they do on agency operations is of no consequence; it's not part of their thinking. Does it ever stop Congress from doing a CR because it's going to make an agency official's life more difficult? No.

GCN: Can agencies do anything to prepare for the continuing resolution?

Collender: First of all, assume that it's going to come. With narrow majorities in both houses and no consensus about what to do in the budget, the [probability] that they're actually going to get a lot of appropriations done on time is very small.

The problem is, you don't know what [funding] level the CR is going to be at.

GCN: Is it easier to get funding for a new initiative or for an ongoing initiative?

Collender: A new initiative is a change in policy. An ongoing initiative is always easier: 'We did it last year. Let's just do it again.' It's just always simpler. For a new initiative, the question for an agency is: You want to do something new? What are you going to stop doing to pay for it?

You cannot assume that just because the president requests something, it will happen, especially with a new initiative. You've got to build a case to a fairly wide group of people to make it difficult for the subcommittee to ignore. That's the kind of thing where you put together a whole communications strategy.

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