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As the story goes, when President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1942 asked Sen. Kenneth McKellar, then the ranking member of the Appropriations Committee, to quietly provide $2 billion for a secret weapons lab, the Tennessee Democrat had a brief and quick response.
“Mr. President, I have just one question. Where in Tennessee do you want me to hide it?” McKellar said, according to congressional lore about Tennessee’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory, a key part of the Manhattan Project.
It was just one instance among countless cases on Capitol Hill where appropriators — the lawmakers who hold the prized positions closest to the federal purse — found a pressing national priority fitting in neatly with local interests for economic development and the jobs that come with it.
From the funds longtime appropriator John P. Murtha, a Democrat, funneled to his hometown of Johnstown, Pa., by locating the National Drug Intelligence Center there to the federal dollars Harold Rogers, a Republican and now the House Appropriations chairman, steered toward the anti-drug nonprofit Operation Unite, which he helped found in his southern Kentucky district, the appropriations story has been one of political clout executed through the federal spending process.
That’s why legislators such as McKellar and Murtha would have been shocked at the decision Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, made at the start of the 113th Congress, when he gave up the chance to move up the seniority ladder on Appropriations for a seat on the tax-writing Finance Committee.
At the same time, two senior Democrats — Tom Harkin of Iowa and Patrick J. Leahy of Vermont — passed on the chance in December to take over the gavel after the death of Daniel K. Inouye of Hawaii, leaving more junior Barbara A. Mikulski of Maryland to become chairwoman.
In the House, Cynthia M. Lummis, R-Wyo., left Appropriations after one term, shifting to a Natural Resources Committee she said was more suited to the needs of her state. Lummis had previously said she didn’t enjoy her time on Appropriations.
“Clearly, one would have to say that the committee is at a low ebb,” said former Appropriations Chairman Robert L. Livingston, a Louisiana Republican who led the panel during its last intense period of budget cutting in the 1990s. “It’s a sign of the times.”
For today’s legislators, the appropriations assignment simply is not what it used to be.