The View from Inside Room B308

By Phil Hayward | Posted on March 23, 2012

One of the best ways to see the legislative branch of the U.S. government in action is to take in a Hill hearing. This is particularly true with the federal appropriations process, which, we all know from high school civics, originates in the House of Representatives. It’s a time-honored and well-oiled process that begins soon after the President introduces his budget in February for the coming FY13 fiscal year. Soon after, various House Appropriations subcommittees hear testimony from key funding recipients within their purviews. Only key organizations are invited, and NRPA takes great pride in its place at the table. For the NRPA, it’s an important opportunity to make the case directly and personally to the House Sub Committee, Interior, Environment, and Related Agencies on the importance full funding of the states’ share in the Land and Water Conservation Fund.

Yesterday, March 22, NRPA President/CEO Barbara Tulipane testified before this committee not only on the importance of full funding for LWCF stateside program, but also to advocate for exclusion of an onerous competitive grant program proposed by the Department of the Interior. Like the 47 other representatives of organizations receiving funding influenced by this committee, Barbara had five minutes to testify. For those brief five minutes, many hours of work by NRPA’s Government Affairs and Communications teams went into crafting and refining her message. Barbara is always at ease in front of even the toughest audiences, and her testimony yesterday morning was no exception—even when the committee’s time nearly got derailed by a call to a floor vote.

As requested, Barbara, NRPA board member Brian Knapp, and NRPA Government Affairs staff arrived half an hour early–which actually means 45 minutes early, since the line of people going through the security apparatus of the Rayburn Congressional Office Building stretched out the front door and half block down Independence Avenue. Fortunately, Brian knew tunnel shortcuts into Rayburn from an adjoining building. Then it was just a matter of locating the hearing room in the cavernous building. Unless it’s a Supreme Court nomination or a hearing on the level of Watergate, chances are the hearing room will be intimate. Room B308 was indeed cozy.

The room is square in configuration—you enter through heavy, wood double-doors from the side, guaranteeing that half of the 50 or so people there will glance over at your arrival. With its thick burgundy colored carpet and high ceiling, the acoustics are good and muffled at the same time. Anyone whispering in the back can be heard. Yet microphones are essential. Large photos from National Parks are arranged in a collage on the front wall (Chairman Simpson assured everyone they were from his home state of Idaho). Logo medallions of some of the larger federal agencies represented by the committee adorn the right wall—the National Park Service and the Environmental Protection Agency, for examples. A portrait of three Native Americans in ceremonial dress takes up a large part of the opposite wall. And in front, arrayed around a 15-foot-long table sit the Congressional Representatives: Republicans, Michael K. Simpson (chair); Idaho, Jerry Lewis, California; Ken Calvert, California; Steven C. LaTourette, Ohio; Tom Cole; Oklahoma, Jeff Flake, Arizona; Cynthia M. Lummis, Wyoming; and Democrats James P. Moran (ranking member), Virginia; Betty McCollum, Minnesota; Maurice D. Hinchey, New York; and José E. Serrano, New York. On this day, only a portion of the full subcommittee was on hand to hear testimony. Ostensibly, the staffs of the missing Members will study the written testimony submitted by the speakers.

Most striking about the proceedings was the air of civility and congeniality in the exchanges between visitors and hosts. That may have explained why the panel was behind a full 25 minutes when the NRPA group arrived. Not that it should be unexpected; it’s just that with toxic political environment of the previous 18 months one would have expected more tension in the air. Even when Rep. LaTourette reminded the panel of humanities and arts advocates about Congressional budget priorities the delivery had the feel of a barbershop conversation.

“The biggest threat is not a piece of objectionable art,” LaTourette said. “If we don’t have more people engaged in things like Medicare, these things will go away. You’ve got to get them to think about the Big Picture. And we don’t have enough elected officials engaged in this.”

“Unfortunately, you cannot solve the debt problem by focusing on discretionary spending,” Rep. Simpson added.

That was as political as the conversation got. More often, the post-testimony discussion centered on each other’s affinity for speakers’ causes. When New York Times bestselling author Deborah Tannen explained how a National Endowment for the Humanities grant enabled her to write the first of her 20 books on linguistics, there was plenty of follow-up conversation on both sides of the table on whose kids were majoring in linguistics and whose were teaching languages around the world. For the most part, though, the conversation stayed on topic. When an aide entered though a service door to indicate the committee members would be needed for a House floor vote, the pace accelerated sharply.

Barbara’s panel, “LWCF, National Parks, Public Lands,” included leaders representing Civil War battlefields, National Parks, trails, and historic preservation. With the clock running down (literally, since a timer with a time-is-up red light sits front and center on the table) she was able to deliver NRPA’s main message.

“This subcommittee and Congress have the rare opportunity to achieve national goals without increasing spending or adding to the deficit, and can do so by adopting three simple recommendations,” she testified. “Do not zero out the LWCF; allocate a minimum of 40 percent of LWCF funding to the State Assistance Program; and prohibit any diversion of formula funds to a DOI competitive grant program.”

Two speakers followed Barbara, but it was clear the Representatives had a floor vote on their minds and could not devote the attention she received.


Phil Hayward, Editor of Parks & Recreation