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Don’t Take Civility Out of the House Appropriations Panel

When I came to Washington, one of the first lawmakers I met was Rep. George Mahon (D), a tall, taciturn Texan who was chairman of the House Appropriations Committee. I was awed. [IMGCAP(1)]

In graduate school, I had read Richard Fenno’s magisterial “The Power of the Purse,” an analysis of the appropriations process and one of the greatest books ever written about Congress. While Fenno’s book focused on the previous chairman, Clarence Cannon (D-Mo.), and his longtime ranking member, John Taber (R-N.Y.), Mahon was a central player in the book, and for me, it was like meeting a movie star (he had a touch of Gary Cooper about him, actually).

Over the years, I gravitated to members of the Appropriations Committee. Fenno’s careful portrait of the panel reflected its deep-seated norms and long traditions. The members of the committee were workhorses, not showhorses. They saw their role as protecting taxpayers’ money, as guardians of the public purse, as the chief overseers of how well and how efficiently programs worked. Much of the real oversight done in Congress was done in Appropriations subcommittees.

In both parties, members were carefully chosen for assignment to Appropriations to make sure they fit the norms and cared as much or more about the institution as about their own issues and careers. Few ideologues were put on the committee. So I spent (and spend) time with smart, savvy institutionalists such as Reps. John Porter (R-Ill.), Vic Fazio (D-Calif.), Bob Livingston (R-La.), David Obey (D-Wis.), Dave Hobson (R-Ohio), Norm Dicks (D-Wash.), Martin Sabo (D-Minn.), Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), Ralph Regula (R-Ohio), Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.) and David Price (D-N.C.). Their views, interests and districts are wildly disparate, but all have carried those admirable norms and qualities forward.

Last week, the U.S. Capitol Historical Society held a dinner in the newly redone — and spectacular — Botanic Garden to honor the House Appropriations Committee. Chairman Bill Young (R-Calif.) was there, as was ranking member Obey. Former Chairman Livingston and former Speaker Tom Foley (D-Wash.) were also present, along with many current and former members of the panel and much of the professional staff.

I was given the honor of addressing the group. I noted that the public and press image of the Appropriations Committee is sharply at odds with the committee’s history and its reality. This is not a committee of drunken sailors spending wildly at the public pub. It is a committee of people who are generally careful with the taxpayers’ money and who take their responsibilities seriously. The staff, which has been maligned by the likes of Robert Novak (who has made Staff Director Jim Dyer a regular whipping boy), is filled with dedicated professionals, starting with Dyer and his Democratic counterpart, Scott Lilly. These are people who could leave at any time and command five or 10 times the pay they receive; instead they have provided the long-term glue that keeps Congressional deliberation and institutional memory together.

At a time of partisan bickering and a Congressional tenor that is becoming increasingly nasty and brutish, the Appropriations Committee has been a role model of bipartisan decision-making, of taking serious disagreements across party and ideological lines and resolving them by the book.

Still, the past several years have not been entirely placid in Appropriations land. While Chairman Young and ranking member Obey get along just fine despite their very different world views, signs of tension have been visible for some time. They have threatened to boil over the past couple of weeks over a plan by Regula, chairman of the Appropriations subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education, to punish all the Democrats for voting against his bill en masse by denying any of them specific benefits for their districts.

Regula is no doubt angry (while also trying to show his toughness to the GOP leaders who will decide the next full committee chairman for the 109th Congress). But the fact that Regula — a model of the classic norms of the committee — is talking like this is a sign of how the patterns of the whole House are bleeding over into Appropriations.

It is a sign of something else as well — a serious departure from one of the major norms of the committee — and reason for real concern. That is the earmark fever that has completely taken over the appropriations process.

In Dick Fenno’s book, published in 1966, there is no reference to “earmark” in the index. That is because historically, appropriations bills have not explicitly targeted funds for particular programs in particular districts. They have shaped the direction of spending and often encouraged specific programs in report language. But appropriators avoided earmarks because they inevitably would lead to a kind of circus or bazaar, with rising pressure to add funds for each district, or to use the earmark as a weapon to reward friends and punish enemies.

The House especially saw the danger in this process. The Senate was much happier to open the spigots and use the appropriations process to logroll and make each Member happy. Earmarks took off in the Senate in the 1990s and have risen logarithmically, with Senators of both parties eager to take advantage. Only Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) has stood up strongly against the practice. In the House, though, there were many voices opposing earmarks — including, particularly strongly, Republicans.

That is, until they took over the majority in the House. Now the House is at least as eager to use the earmarking process as the Senate, and the results are clear. In 1996, there were 958 specific earmarked programs or projects, adding up to $12.5 billion in spending. The number nearly tripled in three years to 2,838 earmarks, but with spending staying roughly the same. By fiscal 2002, the number of earmarks rose to 8,341, with spending up to $20 billion. In 2003, we are up to 9,362 projects totaling $22.5 billion. See the trends? And they are there for almost every area of discretionary spending — $7 billion or more in defense, $1.2 billion in military construction, 100 more pages of earmarks in the Veterans, housing, NASA and Environmental Protection Agency appropriations than in 1995, more than $1 billion in the Labor/HHS bill, which (under Obey) had no earmarks to speak of before 1995. Among the most avid proponents and users of these earmarks has been one House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas).

So the predictable has happened. First, the pigs truly are at the trough. Once you open the Pandora’s box of earmarks, it cannot easily be shut or controlled. Once Members see the opportunity to get a project here, a program there, a building over yonder, they all jump to it, even more so in an era of budget restraint. And nobody wants to be left out.

I am not a prig here; I understand that it takes grease to make the wheels of the legislative process move, and that pork itself is not evil or even necessarily bad. Some of it is the price of getting things done in Congress, and much of it is beneficial to society. But you can reach a point where all the standards get lost and where scarce funds are seriously misallocated — where important large programs get diminished funding so that picayune projects can prevail.

Worse by far is when this process turns into a partisan instrument. The idea that the districts of 205 Members of Congress will be explicitly punished for their partisanship or because they vote no as a minority party is ridiculous and foolish. It only adds to the nasty and brutish atmosphere in Congress and underscores the hypocrisy in the earmarking process. And, given the Senate, it will likely add to slowdowns and gridlock in appropriations conferences — already in disarray in many cases as we move further into the fiscal year without the bills enacted.

Most House appropriators know this is wrong — both the frenzy for earmarking and the partisan use of the process. Will they step up to the plate and restore the old values of the committee and in the process restore some of the sheen to their institution?

Norman Ornstein is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.

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