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Appropriations Assignments Are No Longer Coveted

Scott J. Ferrell/CQ Roll Call File Photo
Rogers is House Appropriations chairman, but in an era when important questions are decided by leadership, posts to such panels may not be as coveted as they once were.

The Republican ban on earmarks has undermined the ability of appropriators to mete out money to their own congressional districts and win favors by sending funds to other districts. The cardinals, as subcommittee chairmen are often called because of their sway, now are expected to sing along with the rest of the choir.

Instead of gaining favor with constituents, lobbyists and fellow members through their ability to direct federal spending, members of the Appropriations committees are being “squeezed like we’ve never been squeezed before,” Rogers said last month. Rogers has helped slash more than $40 billion from the federal government’s annual operating expenses since becoming chairman in 2011, and more programs will take hits in the years ahead.

But congressional insiders say the diminishing appeal of appropriations goes beyond the tighter purse strings. The annual spending bills for federal agencies are seen as prime vehicles for directing federal policies, but that power is diminished as a Congress in gridlock opts for extensions over bigger, and more contentious, legislation.

Congress hasn’t passed real appropriations bills for three years, and the sort of continuing resolution that is funding the government this year is typical, extending programs based on last year’s spending levels and offering only a handful of policy directions.

The trend goes beyond appropriations, experts say. In recent years, much of the power in Congress has been consolidated in the hands of a few members, a tight circle of those in leadership, said Livingston, leaving big committees such as Agriculture and Transportation and Infrastructure unable to score legislative wins with multiyear measures.

Appropriators, with a mandate to move a dozen annual spending bills, stand out as particularly vivid examples of the weakening of committee power, he said.

Preferring HELP

The three Democrats who recently passed on Appropriations pointed to their specific long-term interests as the drivers of their decisions — not a diminished appeal for appropriations.

Brown sees taxes, federal health care policy and foreign-trade debates, which will affect Ohio’s manufacturers, as his greatest concerns.

Leahy says his “passion” for the issues facing him as chairman of the Judiciary Committee led him to reject the Appropriations gavel, and Harkin preferred the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee over a post that, after all, could not hand out earmarks.

“I suppose that had something to do it,” Harkin said of the earmark ban. “But, quite frankly, I love the HELP committee. I love the issues that we are involved in.”

Appropriations committees in both chambers still attract recruits, and there’s been no noticeable plunge in contributions to top appropriators since the earmark ban went into effect.

Two former governors joined the Senate Appropriations Committee in the 113th Congress — Democrat Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire and Republican Mike Johanns of Nebraska. And Democrat Jeff Merkley of Oregon, who early in his career worked at the Congressional Budget Office, said he started looking for an Appropriations seat even while first talking with Democratic leaders about possibly running for the Senate.

“There’s a host of issues where it is helpful to bring the perspectives of your particular economy, your particular geography, your particular citizens to the discussions about where we should spend dollars,” Merkley said.

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