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Tom Cole: Custodian of America's 'Crown Jewels'

Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo
Cole, the new chairman of the House Appropriations Legislative Branch Subcommittee, will be working closely with Miller, the head of the House Administration Committee, to figure out appropriate funding levels for the legislative branch.

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.

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