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.
The vote is typically noncontroversial, but Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) who is a member of the committee but seldom attends markups showed up this time. He sought to offer a lower spending alternative. At the markup, McConnell argued that it was up to the Appropriations Committee to take a stand to reduce discretionary spending because Senate Democrats had not passed a fiscal 2011 budget.
Inouye eventually managed to pass a top-line spending level on a party-line vote that was higher than the Republican plan but less than he had originally sought.
Ultimately, the impasse kept Congress from passing the 12 appropriations bills before the end of the fiscal year. Republicans managed to keep the issue alive for the 2010 elections. They won control of the House and boosted their numbers in the Senate.
The GOP campaigned on cutting spending and rolling back the deficit and has since taken almost every opportunity to make good on that promise, hoping to ride the tea party wave to bigger gains in 2012.
But the gridlock created by those fights, Inouye argued, has forced Congress to fund the government with stopgap continuing resolutions that give agencies little certainty about their budgets.
"That is what [the] breaking up of bipartisanship results in, a terrible CR," Inouye said.
"I am for regular order," he continued, adding that the panel has cleared 11 of the 12 annual spending bills by big bipartisan votes, which Inouye said bodes well for the committee to complete its work.
The breakdown in Senate Appropriations Committee bipartisanship might have strained his relationship with Cochran, who, under normal circumstances, typically votes with Inouye.
But Inouye, who calls Cochran his friend, tries not to take it personally. "I understood that," he said.
"That's life, you know; it's not always upwards, sometimes you go down," Inouye continued. "I've been around here long enough to prepare myself [for] just about anything."
After more than 50 years in Congress, Inouye believes that among the greatest lessons he has learned is that friendship leads to bipartisanship.
Legislating is "a bit more challenging today than it used to be 30 or 40 years ago," the Senator said during recent interviews in his office.
"For one thing, we socialized more before. We'd have time, we'd have lunches together. Today, very seldom do you see Members having lunch together," Inouye said.
"Somebody might say that's not a big thing. But if you develop warm relations, friendly relations by these activities, it may follow to the conference table," Inouye said. "Today, you don't have it."
Inouye's observations come as the Appropriations Committee, under divided government, has struggled to get any of the 12 annual spending bills into law. Congress has had two spending fights already this year that have threatened to end in government shutdowns, and the next continuing resolution which the House is expected to pass today will set up another potential showdown Nov. 18.
Inouye said he hoped there would not be another government shutdown crisis in November but refused to make any predictions.
The impasse, in part, stems from differences in ideology. Republicans have made cutting spending their No. 1 goal. Democrats, who also have embraced deficit cutting, have argued that the economy is too weak to cut too deeply now.
The contrasting visions have wreaked havoc on the appropriations process and raised the ire of the public and lawmakers alike as Congress struggles to accomplish its most basic duty: to keep the government funded.
"We have several new Members, especially in the House," Inouye said. "And many of them have had no involvement in government before. And apparently many of them campaigned on the basis that the government is too big, that it is not necessary.
"I have nothing against people believing in what they think is right," he continued. "I believe in certain causes that are not necessarily in the majority, but I would hope that people would understand they don't have to be disagreeable."
Inouye points to his friendship with the late Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) as a model.
Stevens "was as conservative as you can find, and I am considered a liberal. In most of our positions, we disagreed," Inouye said. "But the fact that we disagreed was not important. We were not disagreeable. He didn't yell at me, I didn't yell at him; I didn't curse at him and I didn't insult him."
Inouye and Stevens were such good friends that they also campaigned for one another.
"Our friendship was, I would say, real. We need more Ted Stevens," Inouye said.