The last time Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen popped into the spotlight was when the congressman — 61 at the time — chased down a 19-year-old pickpocket who’d mugged him in Georgetown, and held the thief until the police arrived.
Now the low-key centrist Republican from northern New Jersey is expected to become the next chairman of the powerful House Appropriations Committee at a golden moment for the GOP, with unified control of Congress and the White House for the first time in a decade.
Those who’ve worked closely with Frelinghuysen, 70, say he brings an energy and toughness to his legislative work, just like he displayed in his pursuit of the mugger back in 2007. He’ll need it as he faces battles both with members of his own party and Democrats, despite the strong friendships he holds with other lawmakers.
Frelinghuysen, currently chairman of the Defense Appropriations Subcommittee, likely won’t be challenged for the chairmanship, which isn’t quite as coveted as it was back in the age of earmarks but still carries clout. He’s the longest-serving Republican on the full committee other than the current chairman, Harold Rogers of Kentucky, who is bound by GOP rules to hand over the reins in January. The GOP steering committee is expected to make its recommendations on chairmanships this week, followed by ratification by the full House Republican Conference on Friday, according to a GOP aide.
“He’s well liked and well respected,” said Oklahoma Rep. Tom Cole, a senior GOP appropriator, of Frelinghuysen. “I don’t know of any opposition to him within the committee, at all.”
Frelinghuysen, one of the wealthier members of Congress, is more moderate than his predecessor on policy issues. But appropriators and observers expect he’ll run the committee in a similarly steady fashion to Rogers, who drove the panel to complete all 12 annual spending bills for two straight years and successfully negotiated several omnibus packages.
“I think he’s done a really good job of showing his type of leadership, and the committee is grateful for that,” said Rep. Tom Graves of Georgia, another top committee member who led Frelinghuysen’s early whip effort to secure the chairmanship. “I think he’ll do a fantastic job.”
Senior appropriator John Carter of Texas said Frelinghuysen will “make a great chairman.”
The mild-mannered Frelinghuysen has largely avoided attention through two decades in Congress. He sets a brisk pace through the halls of the Capitol, though his ascension to Appropriations chairman means he’ll have a flock of reporters slowing him down for the next two years at least.
“Rodney is a very energetic, smart and tough guy. I found him to be a pretty no-nonsense guy as well,” said Jim Dyer, a principal at the Podesta Group and a former Republican staff director for the committee.
Dyer, who became staff director in 1994, the year Frelinghuysen was first elected to Congress, said the New Jersey congressman and Rogers are the only two members remaining on the committee from those heady days when Republicans wrested the majority away from Democrats and controlled the House and Senate for the first time in 40 years.
“Anybody who’s around Rodney for a while recognizes that he brings a great deal of enthusiasm and energy to the job, and that is a precious commodity in an institution that I think is often short on both things,” he added.
Frelinghuysen was not available for an interview for this article.
He also appears to be respected by Democrats on the committee, including his soon-to-be sparring partner, ranking member Nita M. Lowey of New York.
In an interview this month, Lowey was speaking fondly of Frelinghuysen as she stepped onto an elevator off the House floor — “such a good man,” she called him — when Frelinghuysen hopped onto the elevator right after her. Lowey excitedly relayed to Frelinghuysen the nice things she had just said about him, and the two began chatting about the good old days “when there were Democrats, Republicans and appropriators,” as she put it.
However, friendly relations between the committee’s Republican and Democratic leaders won’t avert serious partisan fights.
For six years, Democrats on the Republican-controlled panel have fought to stave off GOP policy riders and spending cuts aimed at Obama administration regulations and Democratic priorities. That battle will grow more intense for Democrats with President-elect Donald Trump in the White House, potentially ready to sign conservative provisions into law that President Barack Obama would have vetoed.
“I think we can make appropriations great again,” said longtime GOP appropriator Robert B. Aderholt of Alabama, borrowing a variation of Trump’s campaign slogan. “It’s always been the problem of having to negotiate with a president that was not really endorsing what our agenda was. I think Donald Trump and Mike Pence together will be excellent at trying to get a negotiation to move forward.”
On spending issues, Cole said the surprise election results immediately transformed House Republicans from a “firewall” against the Democratic agenda to the “point of the spear” for a Republican agenda.
Frelinghuysen is certainly at the sharp edge of the spear as the new head of the committee that would put the funds behind major Trump administration proposals, or slash budgets at Republican targets like the Internal Revenue Service or the Environmental Protection Agency.
It’s also possible Frelinghuysen’s more moderate views on social and environmental policy could be a check on conservatives’ most ambitious goals.
“I think this Congress could use a dose of moderation wherever they can get it, and I think most taxpayers and observers feel the same way,” Dyer said. “I think there’s a plus in having somebody from the Northeast, where Republicans are challenged a little bit, to be in such an elevated position.”
On the other hand, Frelinghuysen’s mixed voting record suggests he may hesitate to go against the will of the Republican conference.
For example, a longstanding push by social conservatives to defund the women’s health group Planned Parenthood might see success with full GOP control of the government, potentially using appropriations legislation as a vehicle. And Republicans will almost certainly attempt to scale back environmental protections and further cut the EPA budget.
It’s unclear how Frelinghuysen would manage those issues.
He once told a New Jersey newspaper that he and his wife sent a personal check every year to the local Planned Parenthood branch. But in September 2015, after a controversy surrounding fetal tissue practices at the organization, Frelinghuysen voted with the bulk of the GOP conference to deny Medicaid reimbursements to abortion providers like Planned Parenthood.
Three months later, he again broke with other centrist Republicans and voted for a resolution to block an EPA rule limiting carbon dioxide emissions from power plants.
Frelinghuysen’s Army service, a significant military presence in his congressional district and his long tenure on the Defense Appropriations panel positioned him to take over the subcommittee in 2013 when the previous chairman died.
That prime subcommittee, which controls half of the annual discretionary budget, is likely to be chaired next year by his ally, Rogers, though Texas Rep. Kay Granger, another longtime GOP appropriator, is vying for the post. Either way, Frelinghuysen figures to keep a close eye on his own Pentagon priorities.