Appropriations Suddenly Anathema to GOPers

Few Members Seek Once-Coveted Slots

Posted September 15, 2010 at 7:06pm

Republicans appear to be shying away from what has historically been among the most coveted assignments on Capitol Hill — a seat on the House Appropriations Committee.

The post is not so plum anymore thanks to rising voter anger over federal spending and the party’s own decision to prohibit Members from requesting earmarks for their districts.

With several members of the committee retiring and the possibility of a Republican takeover of the House, there are likely to be ample GOP spots to fill next year.

But few Republicans have requested those seats.

“There have been very few because they know that there was not going to be any chance to spend money,” said one Member with knowledge of requests.

House Republicans passed a unilateral one-year earmark moratorium in March that barred Conference members from requesting any projects. The policy was controversial within the Conference, and many Members said they thought it would have to be revised in the future, but GOP leaders have given no indication whether the policy will stand next year.

One Member said the loss of interest has to do with the uncertainty surrounding the GOP earmark policy as well as the realization that the political environment will not allow the committee to function as it once did.

Republican Conference Chairman Mike Pence (Ind.) told reporters Wednesday that Republicans are committed to reforming the process, but he did not offer any details on what the new process will look like.

“House Republicans are determined to end earmarks as we know them,” Pence said. “The American people are tired of spending as usual in Washington, D.C. We need to close the favor factory and fundamentally transform the way we spend the people’s money.”

Other Members have begun to see the ability to earmark as a political liability instead of a way to bring home the bacon.

Rep. Joe Wilson (R-S.C.), who once sought a slot on Appropriations, said he will not seek the position this year and instead hopes to take advantage of his seniority on an Armed Services subcommittee.

“My constituents are very concerned about overspending on earmarks, and so that particular committee could be perceived as negative,” he said. “The district I represent and myself are focused on Armed Services.”

Rep. Jerry Moran (R-Kan.) used the spending panel as a central issue in his Senate primary campaign against committee member Rep. Todd Tiahrt (R-Kan.). Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) was also taken to task over her role on the Appropriations Committee by her primary opponent, Joe Miller.

Both Murkowski and Tiahrt lost their primary bids.

The committee hasn’t been politically toxic just for Republicans.

Democratic appropriators have also realized that the post no longer protects them from a tough challenge. Rep. Alan Mollohan (W.Va.), the chairman of the Appropriations subcommittee overseeing the Justice Department, steered millions of dollars to his home state over the years but lost his primary election, as did Appropriations Committee member Sen. Bob Bennett (R-Utah).

Neither Mollohan nor Bennett lost their seats solely because of their positions as appropriators, but it showed that the clout was no longer what it used to be.

Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform, said he anticipates the fight over earmarking and spending is just beginning and will continue well into the next Congress.

“The fight next year is not going to be liberals versus conservatives, it’s going to be everybody versus the appropriators,” he said.

Norquist said ATR will push the newly elected members of the 112th Congress to form a counter-appropriations panel and advocate for term limits on appropriators to prevent them from amassing too much power.

Longtime appropriator Rep. Jack Kingston (R-Ga.) acknowledged that the committee has lost some of its cache over the years as a result of some of the earmark scandals and spending habits of the past.

“I think that Appropriations has taken a toll with the earmarks and then the spending and that there was a time when people wanted to be on appropriations so they could influence the federal budget,” he said. “I think now, you know, it is a period of adjustment.”

Kingston said he believes a position on the committee is still extremely valuable because of its role as a check to the executive branch.

“You still have access to more executive branch Cabinet members, and you can still get your phone calls returned probably the fastest,” he said. “Like it or not, equal branches of government does not mean you are not intertwined.”

Rep. Jo Ann Emerson (R-Mo.) echoed Kingston’s remarks, saying that the post allows a Member to make sure the federal government is being fiscally responsible.

“Let’s say there are things that are funded in the president’s budget that we don’t like, you have wiggle room there to impact the end result,” she said.

Not all members have given up reaching for a seat on the committee.

Rep. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), a longtime critic of the earmarking process, indicated through a spokesman that he was still interested in the committee but would not make a decision whether to pursue it until after the elections.

Flake campaigned for the post in 2008 under the platform that he could help reform the process from the inside out. He was not given the seat.

Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.), who lobbied hard for his seat on the panel last cycle, said appropriators will have to assume a more adversarial role and be ready to “take some arrows” in order to make sure unnecessary projects are removed.

“I think there will be some constituencies that are upset, you’ll have members who are used to getting a pass to take care of their districts and [those funds] are simply not going be available,” Cole said. “If you aren’t prepared to make those kind of decisions, you really shouldn’t be there.”

Anna Palmer contributed to this report.