A Capitol Hill adage states that there are three political parties in Congress: Democrats, Republicans and appropriators. Members of the Appropriations committees have been the ultimate deal-makers, traders working with the flow of federal funds and the last word for agencies and lawmakers looking to advance programs — and spending — across the country.
But a new generation of conservatives is joining the ranks of the House Appropriations Committee with the goal of changing the panel’s culture. Elected since the tea party wave of 2010, this new, young class wants to use the committee not to trade in spending plans but to advance conservative aims of reducing the size of government. Their goal, according to second-term Rep. Alan Nunnelee, R-Miss., is to recast the once-mighty panel as the “disappropriations” committee.
“Many of us are here to rein in the waste of the federal government, to get better bang for our buck,” said another second-term appropriator, Kevin Yoder, R-Kan. “We’re coming to the Appropriations Committee asking how we can live within our budgets, versus generations back when it was more about how to bring something home to the district. That’s a gone era and I think for good reason.”
Many of these newer Republicans, including Yoder, Nunnelee and Rep. Tom Graves of Georgia, who is in his second full term, cut their teeth in state legislatures working under balanced-budget requirements and have not been in Washington, D.C., long enough to have seen the spending panel operate under “regular order.”
Most striking of all, though, is that several of these conservatives, with Graves at the forefront, are in line to seize Appropriations subcommittee gavels in coming years, should Republicans retain control of the House.
The anti-spending drive has already rankled some traditional committee leaders, and the friction was clear in the collapse on the House floor last year of the Transportation-HUD appropriations bill.
Mike Simpson, R-Idaho, a veteran appropriator who chairs the House Energy-Water Appropriations Subcommittee, said it’s overly simplistic for the younger members to frame appropriations as an issue of spending versus saving money. “It’s not a matter of spending money versus saving money. We’ve always looked for ways to save money,” he said.
Senior House appropriator James P. Moran, D-Va., said some of the new GOP committee members have been “some of the reason why this Congress is so dysfunctional.”
“You get on the Appropriations Committee in order to not appropriate, the same reason you get elected to the legislative branch in order to stop the government from functioning. To me, it seems a bit perverse,” Moran said.
But several of these newer Republican appropriators say they are making headway on committee operations and they expect the panel to move to the right in coming years. “Our overall goal is to bend the curve on excessive government spending, and I think we’ve been somewhat successful in that area,” Nunnelee said.
Graves, now third in line to receive a subcommittee chairmanship, said he sees a “paradigm shift” under way. There’s a “new viewpoint: Let’s focus not on spending taxpayer dollars, let’s focus on saving taxpayer dollars, and that is probably the new culture of the committee. It’s a culture of accountability. It’s one that when agencies come before us, it is a new day for them,” he said.
Other younger appropriators said the rightward shift on Appropriations has come squarely from Chairman Harold Rogers, R-Ky.
“I’m not taking any credit away from anybody, but I’ll tell you that is a charge that’s coming from Chairman Rogers and he’s been very emphatic, very strong about the fact that we’re going to cut and prioritize spending,” said Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, R-Fla., who is in line for a subcommittee chairmanship in the next Congress.
Rogers said he does not expect the addition of more conservative members to change a panel that already is “doing the conservative cause.” “We’ve actually cut discretionary spending more than any time since the Korean War, so I take it we were already conservative,” Rogers said.
These conservative appropriators may be tested when faced with adhering to a conservative agenda while cutting deals on the upcoming fiscal 2015 appropriations bills.
The trio’s voting history suggests that although they are a part of the hard-right conservative movement, they have proved to be members GOP leadership can count on for must-pass fiscal legislation. All three voted to support the December budget agreement (PL 113-67) and to raise the debt limit in early 2013 (PL 113-3), in contrast with some of the Republican caucus’s more hard-line members.
All three also voted in January for the $1.1 trillion omnibus spending package (PL 113-76) even though they previously backed a lower spending level of $967 billion under the fiscal 2014 budget blueprint spearheaded by House Budget Chairman Paul D. Ryan, R-Wis.
Yoder said supporting the higher spending level in the omnibus was consistent with his limited-government beliefs.
“If your options are a spending bill that cuts spending for the fourth year in a row, a [continuing resolution] that doesn’t make any adjustments to spending, thereby continuing bad programs, or a government shutdown, a spending bill is preferable,” he said. “It’s still not perfect — we’ve got a long way to go. The growth in spending is on the mandatory side, and that’s where we need to focus now. Entitlement reform would be a touchdown; this omnibus got us a couple first downs.”
“Discretionary spending is just a piece of the overall budget,” Graves said. “As long as the overall spending is being reduced: That’s how I approached it.”
Some conservatives accepted what many of them consider toxic policy issues in the current spending cycle because they were buried within the take-it-or-leave-it omnibus rather in stand-alone bills. It’s unclear whether tea-party-aligned appropriators will accept separate fiscal 2015 spending bills that fund agencies unpopular with their base, such the EPA and the IRS in the interest of Rogers’ goal of “regular order.”
But some conservative members have settled into what they describe as liaison roles between the spending panel and other rank-and-file conservatives. They said they aim to explain the importance of passing spending bills rather than relying on continuing resolutions.
Labor-HHS-Education Subcommittee Chairman Jack Kingston, R-Ga., one of the most conservative of the cardinals or subcommittee chairmen, said that will help bridge the divide between older and newer Republicans.
“So few members of Congress have actually seen a full appropriations cycle with 12 bills individually brought forward on the House floor with lots of amendments and good debates. The rank-and-file members just don’t understand the advantages of regular order, so these newer members on the Appropriations Committee realize this and they’re trying to see what they can do to better sell the appropriations process to everyone who’s never seen it in action, and I think that’s a really positive thing,” he said.
Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., right, hugs Harold Schaitberger, General President of the International Association of Fire Fighters, after the Congressman spoke at the IAFF's Legislative Conference General Session at the Hyatt Regency on Capitol Hill, March 9, 2015. The day featured addresses by members of Congress and Vice President Joe Biden.