Lewis Puts Stamp on Approps

Posted April 13, 2005 at 6:51pm

Not long after Rep. Jerry Lewis (R-Calif.) was awarded the chairmanship of the Appropriations Committee in January, he sat down with longtime ranking member David Obey (Wis.) to seek, as Lewis puts it, the Democrat’s “advice and counsel.”

What Lewis got was a bleak prognosis on the future of his panel.

“He shared with me the thought that I could very well be the last chairman of Appropriations — meaning that there is so much consternation about the appropriations process in his Caucus that he doesn’t know if the committee could survive,” Lewis said in an interview last week.

“We have similar concerns in my caucus. If you draw that down a pathway you say that a revolution could take place that would undermine the very existence of the Appropriations Committee.”

While it doesn’t appear likely that the panel will actually disappear in the near future, Lewis is very much aware that Appropriations has been under siege of late from every corner of the House.

Conservatives want appropriators to spend less money. Republican and Democratic leaders want their panel members to be more partisan. Rank-and-file lawmakers of all stripes demand both balanced budgets and more projects for their districts. And no one likes year-end omnibus bills, which seem to have become an annual tradition.

By beating out Reps. Ralph Regula (R-Ohio) and Hal Rogers (R-Ky.) for the gavel in January, Lewis won the right — or the burden — of stemming that tide of criticism.

In the months since then, he has eliminated three subcommittees, dethroned three cardinals, shuffled jurisdictions, haggled with the Senate and announced an ambitious schedule that envisions passing every spending bill out of the House by the end of June.

“This is a brand new circumstance, and where it’s necessary, Members know I expect them to be willing to meet on Mondays and Fridays,” Lewis said. “And we’re going to stick to this schedule.

“Certainly the people down on K Street … and others were saying, ‘All the bills done by June? Who’re you kidding?’ I think many are getting the message. Certainly internally, our staff is getting the message. I’m dead serious about it, and my subcommittee chairmen are serious about it.”

Handling lobbyists and his own staff is one thing, but Lewis also has to deal with the Senate. The other body has typically been slower to pass its own appropriations bills, and some members of the Senate spending panel were less than thrilled when Lewis pushed forward with his reorganization plan without waiting for their assent.

Lewis praised Senate Appropriations Chairman Thad Cochran (R-Miss.) and suggested that his dealings with the Senate on reorganization were, as a whole, more cordial than they have been portrayed. But he still believed the House had to go first.

“I would have loved to have been able to negotiate publicly with [the Senate] about what we were going to do. … But in the meantime, if we were going to realistically do anything over here, you just had to move” quickly, Lewis said. “You had to get it done.”

In contrast with previous years, when House appropriators and leaders typically chastised the Senate for delays in moving spending bills, Lewis offered a more conciliatory tone and suggested the House shared some of the blame.

“We’ve often sent our product to [the Senate] right at the end of the fiscal year or even beyond it, for goodness’ sake,” Lewis said. “People have been very proud over here to beat our chest and point our fingers at the Senate and say, ‘Why don’t you get your work done?’ You’ve got to give them a shot.”

One constituency that is certainly pleased with Lewis’ actions so far is the House Republican leadership. Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas), in particular, was a strong proponent of eliminating three panels and breaking up the subcommittee on Veterans’ Affairs, Housing and Urban Development and independent agencies.

When Lewis won the gavel and then did exactly that, some Republican Members wondered privately whether assenting to DeLay’s plan was the price of his victory. Lewis is unbothered by that suggestion.

“I’m not worried at all about that question,” he said. “I was talking about a lot of very significant reorganization … before the idea of reducing the number of subcommittees began. It certainly didn’t take place after I got the job. … That’s kind of the classic who-gets-credit-for-what business, and I’m not worried about that.”

While the leadership may be pleased with Lewis’ restructuring, that goodwill could quickly evaporate if the Californian doesn’t hold the line on spending.

The fiscal 2006 budget passed by the House in March is austere compared with those of past years. Regardless of whether the House and Senate are able to agree on a conference report or whether the House, as it did last year, simply deems its own budget, Lewis will likely have a relatively small pot of money to play with.

Though Lewis conceded that it “won’t be easy,” he expressed confidence that he would be able to meet the spending targets laid out in the budget and, in the process, help change his panel’s profligate image.

“It is my intention that the Appropriations Committee will kind of return to a classic piece of the traditional institution that is a preserver of dollars, not just automatically presuming us to be a spender of dollars,” he said.

Such a sea change would help Lewis fend off attacks from the Republican Study Committee, the group of conservative lawmakers who have been the most vocal critics of the spending process.

Most recently, RSC Chairman Mike Pence (Ind.) led a fight for stronger spending-enforcement rules during last month’s House budget debate. Though the resulting compromise Pence worked out with GOP leaders is unlikely to affect this year’s appropriations process, Pence and his conservative colleagues will likely make more noise when spending bills hit the floor.

“Generally speaking, the Study Committee has been very responsive to the style we’ve developed,” Lewis said. “They believe we are serious [about cutting spending]. But within that group there are individuals who would go way beyond what I can conceivably endorse and be able to move bills at all.”

Even if Lewis works to reduce spending, he will definitely not be launching a crusade against earmarks — a key issue of many conservative critics of the spending panel.

“I have my own policy: It is that every recommendation of our membership individually delivered to the Appropriations Committee ought to be taken very seriously and not just ignored as though, ‘Oh that’s just a project. That’s somebody’s special interest,’” Lewis said.

“One of the things that’s interesting, especially about in-house Washington media, is that they love to paint everything as ‘pork barrel,’ as though that’s a significant item. … Nobody ever talks about the fact that it’s a very fractional part of our overall budget.”

Lewis’ ascent to the chairmanship of Appropriations represents the culmination of a long, patient rise through the committee ranks. But while he has served on Appropriations since 1980, in his younger days Lewis was less focused on the committee route and more interesting in climbing the leadership ladder.

After serving two years as chairman of the Republican Policy Committee and another four as Republican Conference Chairman, Lewis was challenged for re-election to the latter job in 1992 by then-Rep. Dick Armey (R-Texas).

Lewis lost that race by three votes. Though he knew he loved the House as an institution, he said that loss sparked an intense period of self-examination about his goals.

“Speaking of institutions, 13 of those votes [for Armey] were from California, meaning I hadn’t tended my own institution very well, had I?” Lewis said. “At the time, that caused me to think about a lot of things, and the most important thing was, ‘Why had I come here in the first place?’

“I went back to my committee. I’ve never regretted it, and I frankly don’t intend to go anywhere else.”