Appropriations Panel Loses Allure in Congress Targeting Spending

Michele Bachmann, a Tea Party favorite and critic of government spending, took a pass. Utah Republican Jason Chaffetz opted out. California Republican John Campbell said no thanks.

The House Appropriations Committee, once a post that guaranteed control over billions of taxpayer dollars, isn’t such a lure in a new era of austerity.

Although Republicans campaigned on promises to slash spending, few lined up to get on the panel charged with deciding what to cut. Jack Kingston of Georgia, a 16-year veteran of the Appropriations Committee, said some of his party colleagues would rather complain about spending than make the tough decisions about reducing it.

These lawmakers “have enjoyed bashing appropriators and spending and really didn’t want to transition over to it,” Kingston said in an interview. “I feel like you can affect the spending policy best from the committee that appropriates.”

House Republicans aim to cut roughly $60 billion from the current fiscal year’s budget as they seek to reduce spending to 2008 levels. That would require big cuts in the part of the budget that funds medical research, police, libraries, parks, environmental programs and scores of other initiatives.

Republican leaders had additional slots to fill on the Appropriations Committee and other panels after taking over the House majority from Democrats in the Nov. 2 elections. Bachmann, one of the most outspoken critics of the Obama administration’s spending, took Intelligence. Chaffetz picked Oversight and Government Reform. Campbell opted for Financial Services.

Less Interest

“We sent a sheet around, people gave us their preferences and there weren’t that many members that chose to serve on the Appropriations Committee,” said House Speaker John Boehner, an Ohio Republican. “There wasn’t as much interest,” so “it opened up more spots for freshmen.”

Republicans placed nine new colleagues on the panel, including three freshmen, while reducing its membership by almost 20 percent. The committee now has 29 Republicans and 21 Democrats, down from last year’s 37 Democrats and 23 Republicans.

Lawmakers used to wait years for a chance to serve on the panel where members such as the late Pennsylvania Democrat John Murtha became legendary for steering cash to their districts.

‘Prince of Pork’

Current committee Chairman Harold Rogers had been following a similar path. He was dubbed the “Prince of Pork” by the Lexington Herald-Leader in his home state of Kentucky; the newspaper said the Republican had funneled more than $2 billion to his district over his career.

“That used to be the way you could stay here forever and worship the great god of re-election,” said Alan Simpson, a former Republican senator from Wyoming and co-chairman of the Obama administration’s debt-cutting commission.

House Republicans have sworn off approving spending for lawmakers’ pet projects, known as earmarks, in a bid to show Tea Party activists who helped them win the chamber that they are serious about reducing spending.

This includes Rogers, who won a three-way race last month to head the committee promising to uphold his party’s earmark moratorium.

Kingston, who recruited colleagues to join the panel, said many were worried they would be voting for unpopular cuts only to see them die in the Democratic-controlled Senate -- concerns he said were legitimate.

“I don’t see the Senate going along with a lot of the tough decisions that we make,” Kingston said. “But once you got that vote on your record, you can’t get rid of it.”

Hoping for Coup

Still, Kingston, a member of a group of self-described fiscal conservatives known as the Republican Study Committee, said, “I would have loved to have a rush of the RSC members saying, ‘Hell, yeah, let’s have an appropriations coup.’”

The group, made up of about 165 of the House’s 242 Republicans, last week urged even deeper reductions than their party leaders, calling for more than $2 trillion in savings over the next decade.

Some of those who passed on a spot on Appropriations said they didn’t want to give up their assignments on other committees, as is usually required for members of the panel.

Chaffetz, an RSC member aligned with the Tea Party, said, “I just love what I’m doing on oversight,” even if “not many people put it as their number one choice.” He said he’ll offer amendments to spending bills on the House floor.

“That’s the way I can go out and attack appropriations, rather than sitting on an aisle seat on the appropriations committee -- I can get the best of both worlds,” Chaffetz said.

Seniority Concern

Campbell said he didn’t want to sacrifice his seniority on the financial services committee.

Kingston said Bachmann rejected his suggestion she join appropriations. Bachmann, who is circulating a petition urging her colleagues to oppose a requested increase in the government’s $14.3 trillion debt limit in an effort to force spending cuts, declined to comment.

House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan said that although interest in serving on the appropriations panel may have declined, those who joined are committed to cutting.

“A culture shift is underway,” said Ryan, a Wisconsin Republican. “Usually people go on there to spend money, to dole out pork.” Now, he said, “the people going on the committee are the conservatives.”

Among those added was Arizona Republican Jeff Flake, a longtime critic of the panel who in 2007 was kicked off the Judiciary Committee by party leaders because he repeatedly challenged appropriators’ earmarks on the floor.

“I wore them down,” joked Flake. Lawmakers who prefer other committees “don’t understand this is still the tip of the spear -- it’s where money is spent and priorities are made.”

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