As the Senate Appropriations Committee prepares to appoint its subcommittee chairmen, one thing is already clear: Barbara A. Mikulski’s takeover of the full panel should be a boon to the National Security Agency, the largest of the U.S. intelligence agencies and one of the largest employers in her state of Maryland.
The NSA will have a fierce advocate for its budget in Mikulski, a fifth-term Democrat who has played a role in building the agency up in her home state. What is less clear is whether she will also exert much critical oversight of an agency that is often at the center of the most cutting-edge — and controversial — intelligence missions.
A spokeswoman for Mikulski said she could balance both advocacy and oversight.
“As both a member of the Intelligence Committee and a member of the Appropriations Committee, Senator Mikulski has a long history of making sure the National Security Agency has the resources it needs to meet its vital mission of protecting the nation,” said the spokeswoman, Rachel MacKnight. “At the same time, she has robustly fulfilled her oversight responsibility, helping to ensure Americans’ civil liberties and privacy are protected. That balance will continue as she takes on the role of Appropriations chairwoman.”
Mikulski could be in line to take the Defense Appropriations Subcommittee gavel as well, where she would have an even greater stake in deciding the NSA budget, since most intelligence community funding is tucked into the annual defense spending bill. A decision on that subcommittee could come as soon as Wednesday.
Either way, Mikulski will be in a position to influence how much Congress fills the agency’s coffers. Although the NSA budget is classified, NSA historian Matthew Aid said it was pegged at a high of nearly $10 billion in 2009. Like most federal agencies in recent years, the budget has dropped since.
The Maryland Angle
Having Mikulski’s hand on the till can only be a positive for the agency’s ambitions, though, said James Bamford, another NSA historian. When former Appropriations Chairman Daniel K. Inouye, D-Hawaii, died last year, it first looked like the shuffling of positions would put Mikulski in line for the Intelligence Committee gavel.
But she ended up with Appropriations, an outcome that Bamford and others said should work out better for the NSA.
“From NSA’s standpoint, they would rather have her at Appropriations than Intelligence, because they don’t seem to have any problems with the Intelligence Committee the way it is, not having any push back from the committee over the years,” said Bamford. “They don’t really need any help in getting legislation passed and laws and so forth. They would really appreciate having somebody that fights for more buildings and more infrastructure in Maryland.”
Jim Dyer, a former House Appropriations Committee clerk and staff director who is now a principal with the Podesta Group, said that while much has been made of the diminishing power of congressional appropriators, they still generally have more sway than authorizing committees like Intelligence.
Vice President Joe Biden waits to conduct a mock swearing-in ceremony with Sen. Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii, in the Capitol's Old Senate Chamber, December 2, 2014. Schatz was sworn in to serve the remainder of his term since he was appointed to the seat after Sen. Daniel Inouye, D-Hawaii, passed away.