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Where Appropriators Once Roamed, Austerity Arrives

Rep. Sean Duffy said one of the hardest things about replacing a House legend like former Rep. David Obey (D) is having to meet with constituents seeking federal money for a new road, a community program or some other worthy effort.

After decades of hearing yes, Duffy has to say no.

“People come in and they want something from us,” the Wisconsin Republican said. “I tell them, ‘Great, but just so you know, this thing is going to be cut back.’”

It’s never easy for a freshman to satisfy the demands of a district constituency that has grown accustomed to be represented by a veteran lawmaker with the perks and powers of seniority at his disposal. But this year, Duffy and a handful of other conservative freshman Republicans are facing the uniquely burdensome challenge of stepping into the shoes of some of Washington, D.C.’s best-known appropriators, and in a new era of austerity, too.

To his surprise, Duffy said his constituents seem to be getting the message that, at least for now, things are changing in Washington.

Rep. Chip Cravaack (R-Minn.), who in one of last year’s biggest upsets toppled Transportation and Infrastructure Chairman Jim Oberstar, said people with whom he has met understand the situation.

“People understand that there is no more money. People understand we have to be fiscally responsible,” Cravaack said. “The message I am getting from the people of the 8th district is, ‘We know it’s going to be bad, we know it’s going to hurt, but just be honest with us.’”

The Minnesota Republican said that while he sympathizes, his message has been simple: Things are going to be tough. “Our pockets are empty, and our credit’s been tapped, so we’ve got to take a look at all these projects as best we can and do with what we’ve got,” he said.

“Generally speaking, people back home understand that the fiscal situation up here is different than it has been in the past,” said Rep. Mick Mulvaney (R-S.C.), who upended former Budget Chairman John Spratt last year — despite the fact that the Democrat was the dean of the state’s delegation and a master of securing funding for his district.

Mulvaney said that as a result, he gets fewer people looking simply for funding and more constituents seeking other types of help.

“The people coming to my office have not been the ones coming in with their hands out,” he said. “They’re coming looking for regulatory help and other things that the government can do to help them.”

Mulvaney also argued that his constituents understand that regardless of who had won the election, the country’s fiscal condition would have meant serious belt-tightening.

“It would not have been that much different if Mr. Spratt was still here. I mean, look, you’ve got a president out now against earmarks [and] you’ve got a majority that took a position against earmarks. So there were going to be no earmarks here regardless of whether it was me or Mr. Spratt.”

“The message is out there,” he added.

Duffy agreed, explaining that even those who have come to him with requests for funding have understood that money may not be available, and that if it is, it won’t be in the same amounts as in years past.

“People get it. … I am pleasantly surprised,” Duffy said.

When Larry MacDonald, the mayor of tiny Bayfield, Wis., met with Duffy last week, he had no illusions that the freshman would be bringing back the kind of bacon that Obey had during his 42-year career.

Obey, after all, had been the ranking member and then chairman of the Appropriations Committee, where he was able to direct hundreds of millions of federal dollars to his rural, sparsely populated district.

And unlike Duffy, Obey was always a fan of earmarks, which he used to help communities such as Bayfield — with its 600 yearlong residents — foot the bill for the region’s tourist industry centered on Lake Superior.

“We accept the realities, but we also accept the reality we need the help to protect Lake Superior,” MacDonald said Wednesday.

“There has to be a way for small communities to be able to access [federal assistance] with some reasonable sense that we’ll be getting something,” he added.

MacDonald said that during their meeting, Duffy acknowledged Bayfield’s needs but made it clear that directing more federal funds to the region wasn’t in the cards. Duffy’s office agreed to work with MacDonald to cut red tape standing in the way of existing grant programs.

“He said he’d be more than willing to work with us and try to help,” said MacDonald, a Democrat.

But not everyone is convinced that the understanding will last.

Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, who was an Appropriations cardinal when Democrats were in the majority but who left the panel this year when Democrats’ membership was reduced, said GOP appropriators, particularly freshmen, will have to answer for the spending cuts back in their districts.

“The Republicans are going to have to own up — they’re going to have to put their name next to those cuts,” the Florida Democrat said. “They’re going to have to make sure that they explain why it is that their decisions on cuts are not going to strangle the [economic] recovery.”

Kathleen Hunter contributed to this report.

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