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Appropriators Facing Sea Change?

Even while House Appropriations cardinal Bill Young (R-Fla.) asserts the annual spending process remains relatively unaltered in the wake of a bribery scandal that sent one lawmaker to prison and prompted an ongoing investigation into others, he can’t help but point out one small change.

There are no more earmarks.

Well, sort of.

“We don’t call them that anymore,” noted Young, the former Appropriations chairman who, after serving the full six years allowed under GOP-imposed term limits, now runs the subcommittee on Defense. The new terminology, according to Young, is a “project initiated by a Member.”

The revision, while subtle, is of course one of the fallouts from heightened attention being paid to the appropriations process, from within as well as from a broadening federal lobbying-for-earmarks investigation.

But whether reform efforts, undertaken in the wake of the resignation and imprisonment of ex-Rep. Duke Cunningham (R-Calif.), will remain simple semantics or result in something more substantial is still a subject of much debate among the House Appropriations panel’s majority members.

While a dozen GOP appropriators said in recent interviews they feel that a recent spate of attention on their committee — including a burgeoning FBI probe of Chairman Jerry Lewis (R-Calif.) — amounts to little more than a dust-up prompted by the pending November elections, a handful of lawmakers nonetheless believe it is a sea change for the panel.

One GOP lawmaker, who serves on the panel and spoke on the condition of anonymity, asserted that the increased oversight is the result of a larger generational shift within Congress, rather than simple election-year antics.

“Every generation we have an upgrade in the ethics and scrutiny of spending taxpayer money,” the lawmaker asserted. “We’re undergoing that shift right now.

“There is an increased level of scrutiny, and leaders of both parties need to know that,” the lawmaker added.

At least one junior panel member places the blame among the committee’s top members.

“The conduct of some of the senior members has brought on some of this,” said the Republican Member, who asked not to be named. The lawmaker claimed that current criticisms were triggered in part by the “heavy-handedness” of those lawmakers in seeking earmarks.

“The pall over the committee is as much from earmarks as anything else,” the lawmaker added.

But while a majority of those Members interviewed acknowledged recent events have prompted greater oversight of the earmark process — even as a formal reform package has stagnated while awaiting a conference of House and Senate lawmakers — most asserted the Appropriations panel has otherwise been largely impervious.

“Appropriators are a little more used to being targets,” said another GOP committee member who also requested not to be named.

The lawmaker compared the panel to serving in the infantry, noting that its 37 members in the majority, as well as those in the minority, are constantly attacked for one decision or another, such as “spending too much or too little.”

While those criticisms may come from executive branch agencies and departments or home-state constituents, appropriators also find themselves the target of other House Members, according to a senior Republican lawmaker on the panel.

“There’s always a view of Appropriations as a separate body,” said the GOP Member, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

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