Appropriators Already Fretting About Possible Dicks Chairmanship

Posted October 18, 2010 at 10:09am

Updated: 1:36 p.m.

While Democrats nationally are struggling to maintain control of the House, Democratic appropriators are already grappling among themselves over whether Rep. Norm Dicks should be allowed to chair both the full Appropriations Committee and a subcommittee next year.

A long-simmering issue within the Democratic Caucus, concerns have been fomenting discussion since House Appropriations Chairman David Obey (D-Wis.) announced his retirement earlier this year.

Dicks, the powerful No. 2 Democrat on the committee, is the odds-on favorite to lead the panel should Democrats remain in control of the House. Rep. Chaka Fattah (Pa.), ranked 21st in seniority on the committee, has launched an unlikely challenge to the Washington Democrat for the gavel.

Dicks intends to ask the Democratic Caucus to name him chairman of the appropriations panel as well as head of the defense subcommittee, according to Dicks’ chief of staff, George Behan.

Rep. G.K. Butterfield (D-N.C.) recently told Roll Call that while he supports the seniority system, he doesn’t believe the Appropriations Committee chairman should also retain a subcommittee chairman slot.

“That’s one thing I’m concerned about, and I’m not alone although many of [my colleagues] are not willing to express it,” Butterfield said. “That is a sentiment.”

The Chief Deputy Majority Whip said he believes the steering and policy committees should take up the issue.

Outgoing Appropriations Chairman Obey pushed back in an interview last week against criticism that holding both posts simultaneously amounts to hoarding power. He said the panel works best when the chairman also holds a subcommittee chairmanship.

Historically, Democrats have always allowed the chairman of the appropriations panel to also remain the head of a subcommittee. In addition to his role as chairman, Obey serves as head of the Appropriations Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education.

Obey defended the practice in an interview, saying it diminished the propensity for a chairman to meddle in all subcommittees when he has his own to lead. He said it also creates “parity” for House appropriators and Senate appropriators. Senate Appropriations Chairman Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii) also serves as the head of the panel’s defense subcommittee.

Still, rank-and-file House appropriators are at odds over continuing the long-held precedent.

“I would support Mr. Dicks to be chairman of the Appropriations Committee if he would commit that he would not seek the defense subcommittee chairmanship,” Butterfield said. “What I don’t support is one Member holding two positions.”

Fattah, who is in line to be chairman of the Appropriations Subcommittee on Commerce, Justice and Science in the 112th Congress, is hoping to draw a contrast with Dicks on the question of simultaneously chairing a subcommittee.

“Being the full committee chairman is a full-time job,” Fattah spokeswoman Maisha Leek said Monday, adding that her boss would forgo a subcommittee gavel if he were to be named chairman of the full committee.

Leek added that Obey’s retirement provided an appropriate time to reassess various aspects of the Appropriations Committee, including the practice of the chairman also chairing a subcommittee.

Fattah’s views could work to his advantage, as he would have one more subcommittee gavel to promise to other appropriators, whose support would be vital in landing the chairmanship.

Meanwhile, Fattah also has been aggressively doling out money to Democratic candidates in an effort to boost his campaign: $55,000 on Friday alone, Leek said.

Kathleen Hunter contributed to this report.