Congress

Appropriations Chairwoman Nita Lowey announces retirement

New York Democrat has served in the House for three decades

New York Rep. Nita M. Lowey, chairwoman of the House Appropriations Committee, is retiring after 16 terms. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

House Appropriations Chairwoman Nita M. Lowey announced Thursday that she is not running for reelection. The New York Democrat was the first woman to lead the powerful committee.

“After 31 years in the United States Congress, representing the people of Westchester, Rockland, Queens and the Bronx, I have decided not to seek re-election in 2020,” Lowey said in a statement. “It is my deep honor and privilege to serve my community and my country, and I will always be grateful to the people who have entrusted me to represent them.”

Lowey was first elected to her suburban New York City district in 1988. She chaired the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee for the 2002 cycle, the first woman to do so. 

Until this cycle, Lowey had not faced a Democratic primary since her first election to Congress. She had already attracted a challenge from her left this year before she announced her decision to retire.

As head of the Appropriations Committee, Lowey has been a leading figure in all spending negotiations. She became the committee’s first chairwoman in January — in the middle of what would become the longest government shutdown in U.S. history.

Working with ranking Republican Kay Granger of Texas, and their Senate counterparts, the “four corners” of the Appropriations panels were able to negotiate an end to the 35-day shutdown and would later reach bipartisan agreement on the seven remaining spending bills — including funding for the border wall.

During Lowey’s first year leading the House Appropriations Committee, she has sought to use the annual spending process as a check on the Trump administration.

House Democrats inserted language into the spending bills that would have prevented the White House from reprogramming any funding for border wall construction and provided $0 in new funding for the project. The legislation also would have eliminated White House policies that prevent family planning grants from going to any organization — domestic or internationally — that discusses or performs abortion.

Several of those provisions will likely be removed from the final bills to ensure that they can pass the Republican-controlled Senate and be signed into law by President Donald Trump, but Lowey’s leadership on the House panel led it to report all 12 bills — 10 of which made it across the House floor on mostly party-line votes during its fiscal 2020 process.

Primary problem? 

Lowey’s exit does not endanger Democrats’ hold on her 17th District. Hillary Clinton carried the seat by 20 points in 2016, and Inside Elections with Nathan L. Gonzales rates the race Solid Democratic. Given the district’s partisan lean, Lowey’s exit could attract more Democrats into the contest. 

At least two Democrats had already filed to challenge Lowey in the 17th District, as party liberals have been angling to take on longtime incumbents in safe blue seats.

Mondaire Jones, a 32-year-old former Justice Department staffer in the Obama administration and attorney for Westchester County’s Law Department, was one of the candidates taking Lowey on. Jones told CQ Roll Call in August that he was running because of the congresswoman’s positions on issues such as climate change, student debt and oversight of the Trump administration. Jones noted that Lowey backed an impeachment probe of Trump’s actions the day after he launched his primary campaign. 

Lowey’s chief of staff, Elizabeth Stanley, said at the time that her boss “has a strong record as a champion for progressive priorities” and that “she’d never take an election for granted.”

Lowey was expected to have a sizable financial advantage against any primary opponent. She has not released fundraising numbers for the third quarter, which ended on Sept. 30. But she had nearly $1.1 million in her campaign account at June 30, according to Federal Election Commission documents.

Jones announced Thursday he raised $218,000 in the third quarter, but did not release his cash on hand figure as of Sept. 30. In a statement, the candidate thanked Lowey for “for her years of inspiring service to the district.”

“As a trailblazer for women and minorities such as myself, Congresswoman Lowey set an example and has made it easier for people like me to run for office,” he said.

Lowey’s retirement will lead to a long and likely contentious race to find the next Appropriations chairman — or ranking member, in the event Democrats don’t hold the House after the 2020 elections.

The list of likely contenders is long and includes several of the subcommittee chairs. Unlike in the Senate, where the positions of chairman and ranking member are predominantly determined by seniority, House Democrats consider several factors when electing chairs.

That is part of the reason that Lowey became the top Democrat on the panel in 2012 — beating out Rep. Marcy Kaptur, even though the Ohio congresswoman had more seniority than Lowey.

Simone Pathé contributed to this report.

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