At 8:15 a.m. Friday, Rep. Tom Cole sat in his Rayburn office poring over a briefing on the spending bill that supports the roof over his head, the Capitol Dome and other iconic structures around the campus.
“I’ve got a lot to get up to speed on,” said the Oklahoma Republican, who will now serve as chairman of the House Appropriations Legislative Branch Subcommittee, which oversees funding for the operations, safety and upkeep of the nation’s Capitol. “This was not a position I expected to be in a few weeks ago.”
When Rep. Rodney Alexander retired from Congress in late September, Rep. Ken Calvert, R-Calif., was first in line to take the Louisiana Republican’s spot atop the panel that allocates spending for House members’ offices, the Capitol Police, the Architect of the Capitol and other legislative branch agencies.
The death of veteran appropriator C.W. Bill Young of Florida and other departures shuffled that transition, and Cole won his first Appropriations subcommittee gavel.
As the smallest of the 12 annual funding bills, the position is not particularly sought after and is often taken for granted, “unless something goes wrong,” Cole acknowledged. “If there’s not appropriate security, if the garbage isn’t picked up or the toilets aren’t flushed, if the place has physical problems that make it difficult to operate, then people know.”
While others might scoff, he finds some prestige in the job.
“You’ve got to recognize you’re a custodian of some of the crown jewels of the American public,” he said. As a symbol of freedom for people around the world, Cole considers the Capitol “sort of the secular equivalent of St. Paul’s Cathedral.”
The six-term lawmaker last sat on the legislative branch panel in 2010, when Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Fla., held the gavel. He acknowledged that much has changed since then. Under Republican leadership, the $4 billion bill became an opportunity to show GOP willingness to lead by example in deficit reduction efforts. As a close ally of Speaker John A. Boehner, Cole recommended some of the deep cuts that Alexander and former Chairman Ander Crenshaw, R-Fla., set. The sequester has also taken its bite.
For instance, House members have seen an 11.4 percent reduction in their office budgets since 2011. The sequester cut an added 8.2 percent to the funds used to travel to their districts, oversee casework for constituents and recruit and retain staff. That leaves each member with about 20 percent fewer funds.
“Those were tough things to do, but given the size of our budget deficit, it was extremely important that if Congress was going to ask [for] sacrifices from other people in government, which we certainly did, [Congress] had to show willingness to make those cuts itself,” said Cole, who currently serves as a deputy whip and is a member of the Republican Steering Committee. “They made a lot of really, really tough decisions.”
Whether the GOP has gone as far as it can go in the direction of deficit cutting is “yet to be determined,” Cole said.
“Lord, I hope so,” Wasserman Schultz told CQ Roll Call on Friday. As the panel’s ranking member, she will work closely with Cole to hammer out the details of a fiscal 2014 bill. Both said they look forward to a strong working relationship, despite partisan differences.
Cole emphasized that he will be working closely with House Administration Chairwoman Candice S. Miller, R-Mich., to figure out appropriate funding levels.
The legislative branch panel essentially writes the checks for the many functions Miller oversees.
The two go way back, and their political careers have advanced in lockstep. Both served as secretaries of state in their respective home states in 1995, and they were part of the same freshman class in 2003. They are now both part of the GOP’s deputy whip team.
“I just can’t say enough about Tom Cole and how highly I think of him from a professional standpoint,” Miller said, adding that the two are very familiar with each other’s working styles. That bond could help them navigate within the confines of the next continuing resolution, she said.
Miller pinpointed committee budgets when asked about her funding priorities.
“I think there’s a lot of feeling here that these large cuts have hindered the ability, particularly in the committees, for folks to do their oversight work,” she said. “I’m not talking about increases, but we really need to be very sensitive to what’s happened over the last couple of years.”
Once he learns the ropes, Cole could provide much-needed consistency to the constantly changing panel. Not since Wasserman Schultz has the legislative branch appropriations panel had the same chairman for more than two years. Asked if he is here to stay or using the spot as a steppingstone to more prestigious spending panels, Cole said: “When you’re 64, you don’t look too far down the road.”