The GOP Fight Over the Top Job at Appropriations

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From left: Ed Reinke / AP; Alex Wong / Getty Images; Stephen Morton / Getty Images

From left: Representatives Hal Rogers, Jerry Lewis and Jack Kingston

A weary Washington adage is that Congress is made up of three political parties, not just two: Republicans, Democrats and appropriators. And in that case, Democrats weren't the only party on Capitol Hill last month to suffer a shellacking, as President Obama put it.

With lawmakers vowing to usher in a new era of economic austerity, the anti-earmark brigade on the march and Republican leader John Boehner pushing to divvy up sprawling spending bills to identify wasteful measures, members of the powerful House Appropriations Committee (which controls discretionary spending) find themselves at the forefront of the fight to lop $100 billion off the federal budget.

They will have a difficult balancing act: trim the budget superficially, and they'll spark the ire of fiscal conservatives; slash too deeply, and they'll anger constituents accustomed to the largesse committee members are capable of delivering. "The Appropriations Committee, which has been a great plum, is now going to be a great pain in the ass," Representative Barney Frank, the Massachusetts Democrat, said a few weeks ago, citing reports that Republican members have turned down slots on the powerful panel.

Pain or not, there's still no shortage of Republicans who want to run the committee. The leadership race pits Representative Jerry Lewis of California, a former Appropriations chairman, against veteran committee member Hal Rogers of Kentucky and upstart Jack Kingston of Georgia. Earlier this week, each of the contenders gave a presentation to the 34-member GOP steering committee charged with picking chairmen, which is expected to make a recommendation to the full party conference as soon as next week.

This is more than just another committee-leadership battle; its outcome could be a telltale sign of where the clout in the new Republican-controlled House will lie. "In some ways it's a test of the impact of the election and the new members who have come in on an anti-earmark, antispending platform," says Thomas Schatz, president of Citizens Against Government Waste.

As the ranking Republican member, Lewis has seniority on his side; but because he has already served as the No. 1 Republican on the committee for six years, he requires a special waiver to sidestep term limits. He's also a prodigious pork-barrel spender who has nabbed more than $97 million in earmarks in fiscal year 2010, according to the Center for Responsive Politics — and thus hardly an ideal point man on the topic for a party that passed a moratorium on pet projects after winning back the lower chamber.

Like Lewis, Rogers has not been shy about securing earmarks for his district, Kentucky's 5th congressional district, which he has represented since 1981. If Lewis can't get a waiver for the job — a steering-committee decision, which is likely to come in the next week and could be tied to a similar verdict for Republican Representative Joe Barton, who needs a waiver to helm the House Energy and Commerce Committee — Rogers is the putative heir apparent. In October, Rogers said he had lined up a majority of votes on the steering committee.

While Kingston sponsored or co-sponsored nearly $67 million in earmarks in fiscal year 2010, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, the Georgia Congressman has better marks on spending issues than his competitors: he scored a 74% rating from Citizens Against Government Waste, compared with 39% for Lewis and 38% for Rogers. In a telephone town hall this week held by the group Tea Party Patriots, more than 80% of respondents lined up behind Kingston.

"If fiscal conservatives want to get control of federal spending, we must first get control of the Appropriations Committee. And Jack Kingston gives us the best chance to accomplish that goal," Chris Chocola, president of the fiscal-conservative organization Club for Growth, said in a statement. But having served for nine terms, Kingston has to convince committee members to bypass his more seasoned competitors. There's precedent for this sort of a jump, however: Boehner, incoming Speaker of the House, leapfrogged a more senior member in 2001 to become chair of the House Education and Labor Committee.

"They all have their warts," says Steve Ellis, vice president of Taxpayers for Common Sense, a nonpartisan spending watchdog. "I don't think the leadership is necessarily thrilled with any of its options."

None of the candidates have exhibited the showmanship of former Appropriations chair Bob Livingston, who in 1995 took a machete to the House floor as a symbol of his goal of hacking away at a bloated budget. But each has made a point of promoting a blueprint tailored to appeal to Tea Party deficit hawks. Lewis wants to pare the budget with far-reaching cuts, including stripping funding from the Environmental Protection Agency. Rogers has stressed the need to stifle health care–reform implementation and start "tirelessly scrutinizing" President Obama's budgets, while Kingston wants to ultimately cap spending at 18% of GDP (it was at 25% in fiscal 2009, up from 18% in 2001). The crowded field, says Ellis, has "forced some one-upmanship," in which three pork-barrel veterans are scrambling to portray themselves as the poster boy for the GOP's new era of purported economic austerity.

Playing to the party's base is nothing new, but over time it has eroded the bipartisanship that used to distinguish the committee from its counterparts. In the 1950s, when Congress flipped twice in rapid succession, staffers on Appropriations stayed in place, says Scott Lilly, a senior fellow at the liberal Center for American Progress and a former Appropriations Committee staff director. "Members felt they served one party as well as the other, and they could all get along," Lilly says. Now, with comity giving way to partisan bickering, members willing to work across the aisle "have been decimated," he says. "The few that are left are afraid for their lives."

While the challenge of cutting spending may make Appropriations slightly less coveted than it has been, the committee's influence remains undiminished. "Let's face it, the vast majority of committees, if they did nothing, it wouldn't be that huge of a deal," says Ellis. "The Appropriations Committee, every year, is tasked with getting the spending bills over the line. This is a committee that has to function."