Jerry Lewis, old-school appropriator who tried to shield powerful panel, dies

California Republican took gavel at time of transition

Former California Rep. Jerry Lewis, here during a 1999 interview in his Rayburn office, died Thursday at the age of 86.  (Douglas Graham/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Former California Rep. Jerry Lewis, here during a 1999 interview in his Rayburn office, died Thursday at the age of 86. (Douglas Graham/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted July 16, 2021 at 11:22am, Updated July 19, 2021 at 3:15pm

ANALYSIS — With his perfectly coiffed silver hair and toothy grin, former Rep. Jerry Lewis looked like a stunt double for actor Peter Graves, star of the hit TV series “Mission: Impossible.” It’s not too much of a stretch to say the California Republican, who died July 15 at age 86, had a similarly herculean task when he took over the House Appropriations chairmanship in 2005.

The powerful committee’s reputation had taken hit after hit with young conservatives rapidly gaining influence within the GOP, accusing the panel and its powerful staff of being more interested in spending taxpayer dollars and cutting deals with Democrats than in upholding party principles.

President George W. Bush had just been reelected with GOP majorities in both chambers, and the committee’s congenial chairman, Rep C.W. “Bill” Young of Florida, was term-limited. Enter Lewis, who didn’t have the seniority that Ohio Republican Ralph Regula had but won over the leadership and rank and file with fundraising prowess, a straighter party-line voting record and a pledge to rein in what had been viewed as appropriators’ excesses.

From left, House Appropriations Chairman C.W. “Bill” Young, Ohio Rep. Ralph Regula, Lewis and Michigan Rep. Joe Knollenberg are seen before a markup in 1999. (Scott J. Ferrell/CQ Roll Call file photo)

But Lewis, first elected in 1978, couldn’t hide the fact that he was from the old school. One picture that hung in his office was of former Rep. Charles Wilson, a Texas Democrat featured in the book “Charlie Wilson’s War,” later a movie starring Tom Hanks. Although from the opposing party, Lewis was always proud to serve with Wilson, credited with starting the off-the-books program funneling aid through the Defense spending bill’s “black” or classified budget to the mujahedeen fighters battling the Soviets in Afghanistan in the 1980s.

Restructuring the committee

On Appropriations, the first gavel that Lewis got when the GOP took back the House in 1995 after decades in the wilderness was for the old VA-HUD subcommittee, a hodgepodge of agencies and programs that expanded during the Great Society and the Nixon years, ranging from the aforementioned Cabinet departments to the EPA and NASA. It was chock full of earmarks, or line items for specific home-district programs or projects, and Lewis took full advantage.

As part of his sales pitch for the full-committee chairmanship, however, Lewis needed to convince one of the most powerful men in Washington at the time, if not the most powerful: then-House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, R-Texas.

DeLay wanted that VA-HUD subcommittee blasted to bits, partly because it attracted too much negative attention from conservatives, and partly because it squeezed DeLay’s beloved NASA, which had to compete for dollars with two massive departments that hoovered up much of the subcommittee’s budget allocation.

Lewis delivered. When he took over the full committee, he promptly eliminated three of 13 subcommittees, including VA-HUD, parceling out its responsibilities.

NASA and other science agencies were lumped together with the departments of Commerce, Justice and State. The EPA went with the Interior Department, a pairing that exists to this day. Former subcommittee chairmen who had crossed leadership, or who attracted unwanted attention, were stripped of their gavels. The Legislative Branch subcommittee, where Lewis had once been the top Republican, was for a time subsumed into the full committee, putting that gavel also effectively into Lewis’ hands.

Lewis went about trying to repair the panel’s relationship with the rank and file, which had come to view unelected staff as having undue influence. He cleaned house and brought in his own people, shuffling top aides out into unfamiliar roles on different subcommittees.

Lewis makes a statement in 2011 during a House Appropriations markup of the Homeland Security and the Military Construction-VA spending bills. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Part of that was a sincere view that having fresh eyes on a topic was a good thing. Lewis reinvigorated the little-known Surveys and Investigations team on House Appropriations, full of former defense and intelligence community officials, with a mandate to root out waste, fraud and abuse within the executive branch and end cozy relationships with agency program managers.

Defender of ‘regular order’

In 2005, despite mismatched subcommittees in the House and Senate, Lewis was proud that Congress managed to pass all the annual spending bills individually rather than resort to a giant omnibus, in which all manner of hidden provisions could be slipped in.

Lewis often talked of regular order, which party leaders feigned interest in. Being a team player, there was little Lewis could do when then-Speaker J. Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., and then-Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., tacked liability protections for avian flu vaccine developers onto the final Defense appropriations bill at the eleventh hour. The conference report had just been closed out, without the vaccine indemnity program — authorizing legislation that Lewis felt had no business in an appropriations bill.

Lewis seethed over his leadership’s meddling; he’d just reached agreement with the other conferees, House and Senate, Democrat and Republican, and here was the rug being pulled out from under them. But Lewis was a party man, the last legislative train was moving and it was late December with Christmas approaching. He flashed his trademark grin and bore it.

The dam on earmarks was already breaking as Lewis took the gavel, but he put his finger in the dike, at least for a time. Lewis pushed back on critics, calling out the Bush administration’s earmarking within its own budget requests even as it called for restoration of the line-item veto, which had been ruled unconstitutional during the Clinton administration.

He and his staff relished calling attention to administration budget requests like a “classical Chinese garden” at the National Arboretum within Agriculture Department accounts, or a sleek new emergency medical center to serve powerful people in Washington that couldn’t get built in the small towns his colleagues on the committee represented. 

The infamous “Bridge to Nowhere” in Alaska wasn’t funded in an appropriations bill, Lewis and fellow appropriators liked to point out — that was the 2005 surface transportation law written by another committee.

Lewis had his own baggage when it came to earmarks. Accusations that he favored lobbyists he was close to became the subject of a federal investigation. 

Lewis wasn’t alone among lawmakers when it came to earmarking and relationships with lobbyists and campaign contributors, with others on both sides of the aisle landing in hot water. Some were caught red-handed taking bribes in exchange for earmarks and other legislative favors, landing in prison. The charges against Lewis never stuck, but they stung, and he was never able to fully shake the stigma that something didn’t quite smell right.

A time of transition

The earmark scandals of the mid-2000s helped bring down Republican majorities, who already faced a tough slog in the 2006 midterms, when Bush faced the dreaded “six-year itch” that tends to boomerang against members of a president’s party. 

The public grew weary of what seemed like a decadent majority filled with out-of-touch decision-makers feathering their own nests; the Rep. Mark Foley page texting scandal, which hit shortly before the elections, didn’t help. Neither did the lingering Iraq War or Bush’s own unpopularity.

Lewis, whose firm handshake nearly crushed a reporter’s note taking hand on more than one occasion, was Appropriations chairman for a brief and perhaps forgettable time. The GOP majority was like Rome in decline, and the Appropriations Committee itself was near the end of its zenith, despite Lewis’ efforts to restore trust.

When Rep. John A. Boehner, R-Ohio — famed for never having accepted earmarks and later banning the practice outright — took the speaker’s gavel in 2011, Lewis lost his bid for a term limits waiver to reclaim his lost chairmanship. 

Boehner kicked the Appropriations panel out of its posh front office just off the House floor on the second floor of the Capitol, with breathtaking views overlooking the National Mall, sending them upstairs to the third floor and less space, worse views and closer proximity to reporters in the press gallery.

Lewis retired the following year.

Warts on his record and all, Lewis represented a time when the old saying was that there were three parties in Washington: Democrats, Republicans and appropriators. He was old school and liked it that way.

Lewis and California Rep. Ken Calvert attend the American Meat Institute’s annual Hot Dog Lunch in the Rayburn courtyard in 2012. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

“If Jerry was ever criticized, it was for delivering too much and too often for his district,” his former colleague and friend Rep. Ken Calvert, R-Calif., said in a statement Thursday. “Our country would be a far better place, if all of our public servants worked as tirelessly and effectively for the people they represented as Jerry Lewis did.”

There will be a memorial service for Lewis at the University of Redlands Chapel in Redlands, Calif., on Aug. 5 at 10 a.m. Pacific time.

Editor’s Note: Peter Cohn, CQ Roll Call’s budget and appropriations editor, covered congressional appropriations in the 2000s as a reporter.