Intractable fights over spending and the elimination of once-ubiquitous earmarks haven't diminished the power of appropriators, but the increased partisanship of Congress may have, Senate Appropriations Chairman Daniel Inouye said Monday.
The Hawaii Democrat, who also serves as President Pro Tem, said the panel remains as powerful as ever, but he contended that a lack of cooperation across the aisle has hampered his committee's ability to get individual spending bills enacted in recent years.
"I think it is just as important as it used to be," Inouye said during two recent interviews in his office.
He said panel spots remain desirable because "you can actively involve yourself in the development of your nation or state" in a way that you can't on other committees.
Despite his critique of partisan spending fights, Inouye nevertheless might be spoiling for one over earmarks. He wants earmarking to return when a two-year ban that the Senate agreed to last year ends in 2013.
The chairman said he hears from Democrats and Republicans on the need to bring earmarks back. He believes lawmakers are now going to agencies to get funding directed to projects, which he said is less transparent than under the previous earmark-disclosure regime. "It's not fair for someone who has a good connection with 'Mr. X'" to be able to take care of their state, he said.
"I am going to do everything to reinstate earmarks — or whatever you want to call them — because the Constitution is clear and it was never intended to have the executive branch do all of that. We are the ones who are called up to say to folks, 'You are going to pay this tax.' We have to have some say on how to spend it."
He added, "No matter how considerate, how intelligent, how knowledgeable bureaucrats can be, they don't know the details in our states."
Inouye has been a reluctant supporter of earmark bans and spending cuts during the past few years, agreeing to them only after it was clear they were going to be implemented anyway. He is the second-longest-serving Senator in history and has been on the Appropriations Committee since 1971, but he took the gavel in 2009 only after the longest-serving Senator in history — Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.) — stepped down because of failing health.
Though the Appropriations panel has traditionally been a clubby bastion of bipartisanship, tension over spending has been building during the past few years. In July 2010, for example, Inouye sought to have the committee approve the top-line spending cap and allocations for the 12 annual spending bills. He was surprised when, shortly before the markup, he received a letter informing him that committee Republicans — including ranking member Thad Cochran (Miss.) — were not going to support his proposal as he assumed they would.