IFI's funding in Rep. David Obey's hands

By Susan Falvella Garraty

Washington, D.C. --- Make note of this man's name.

Congressman David Obey (D-WI) is the chairman of the House Appropriations Committee.

Right now, that places him at the very pinnacle of power on Capitol Hill.

Because of political stagnation, it appears there may not be any kind of formal budget resolution in the House of Representatives before the start of the next fiscal year.

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Chairman Obey and the appropriations committee, as a result, will become the de facto gateway of funding for the U.S. government dissemination of billions of dollars in spending.

Guess where Congressman Obey just came back from? Belfast!

As discussions swirl over a variety of potential cuts to U.S. congressional funding in the 2011 Budget, such threats would seem to be empty.

House members and their staff are indicating that with both sides of the aisle ramping up for epic political battles that could change the balance of power in the House and the Senate, members of Congress will likely spend less time here, and more time back in their districts fighting for their political lives.

Several members said on background this week that they do not expect to vote on a budget before the November elections.

One veteran incumbent who won't be fighting to retain his seat is Rep. Obey.

He announced last month that after 41 years representing Northwest Wisconsin, he would not seek re-election.

For decades, Obey pursued healthcare reform and changes in higher education funding opportunities. With those items concluded, he said that now was the time to retire.

But before setting down his gavel, there's still work to be completed, and over the Memorial Day break, Obey landed in Belfast.

Obey and a bipartisan congressional delegation, eight House members in total, spent two days in Northern Ireland. The "co-del" was on a fact-finding mission specifically to examine the role of the International Fund for Ireland and to see how U.S. money invested in the IFI has been used.

It could be a case of the luck of the Irish, but the timing of such a trip by the chairman of the House Appropriations Committee could not be more fortuitous for those who would like to see continuation of such line items as the $15 million bestowed annually on the IFI.

The operation of the U.S. government's spending without the passing of a formal budget resolution is not that uncommon. But by having spending caps set by the House Appropriations Committee, it places an inordinate amount of power in the hands of the committee chair. Rep. Obey, then, colud well play the role of decider with regard to continued IFI funding.

Support for the continuing of the fund, meanwhile, is coming from a powerful source this week.

A spokesman for Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told the Echo exclusively that despite threats by the House Republican leadership to eliminate money for the IFI, Clinton wants full congressional funding for it.

"She still supports it," said State Department spokesman, PJ Crowley.

And the EU is backing the IFI from Brussels. According to the Press Association, the European Parliament last week voted to continue its support of 15 million euro for the fund.

The International Fund for Ireland was formed in 1986 to promote cross border and community projects to help those dealing with Ireland's sectarian divide.

Hundreds of millions of dollars have flowed through the fund through the years. In 2006, the fund indicated it was nearing the end of its usefulness and that it was in the final "phase of activity to promote peace building and reconciliation in Ireland." But nevertheless it has been extended on a year by year basis since then.

House Republican Whip, Eric Cantor (R-VA) and others members of the GOP have indicated that congressional funding should be cut off for the IFI in the FY2011 budget.

Without a formal budget, however, the IFI's future funding, along with billions of dollars of other spending decisions will be subject more to Chairman Obey's views than debate on the floor of the House.

During the co-del visit to Belfast, Rep. Obey and his colleagues met West Belfast MP Gerry Adams and others at Sinn Féin headquarters on the Falls Road.

Adams walked with the delegation along the Falls. He took the opportunity to thank Congressman Obey for his work in support of the IFI and to praise the work of the fund. He outlined some of its positive contributions in areas of high unemployment and disadvantage and in interface and peace building work.

"The IFI has done some very good work over the years and it is very important, particularly in light of the current global economic crisis, that these funds continue to be available for projects in disadvantaged areas," said Adams.

The congressional delegation also met first and deputy first Ministers Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness during the two day stay.

PHOTO [Rep. David Obey (carrying book) and other members of the visiting congressional delegation walk the Falls Road with Gerry Adams last week.]