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4 Centrists Get Money Seats in Appropriations Gavel Shuffle

(Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo)
(Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

The House Appropriations Committee executed a rare midterm leadership shuffle Wednesday.

Four subcommittee chairmanships changed hands just in time for the drafting of whatever measure might bring this year’s spending deliberations to another way-behind-schedule conclusion. And all the shifting gavels were delivered to veteran Republicans who stand out as moderates on their party’s tilted-to-the-right ideological spectrum.

That should in no way be interpreted as a sign of any changing balance of power in the Republican Conference, where the hard-line budget conservatives look to dominate just as they have for the past three years.

Instead, the fact that the winners were all centrists should be seen as evidence that seniority and leadership reliability still provide some benefits in Republican circles. It’s also a reminder that the sort of GOP lawmakers who choose to devote their careers to deciding where the money goes are by and large a fiscally malleable lot.

The altered assignments mean a changed membership for one-third of the group known all over Capitol Hill as the college of cardinals. The allusion to the power players of the Catholic Church is not only because of the significant unilateral power these chairmen have to reward or restrict federal agencies through subtle tugs on the federal purse strings. It also refers to their somewhat secretive code of conduct for rewarding colleagues in both parties who embrace the panel’s spending culture — and punishing those who don’t.

This latter code has frayed somewhat since earmarking became verboten and the GOP majority unified behind the goal of cutting the discretionary part of the budget that appropriators control. But it still remains solidly in force at the margins. And so — if a comprehensive omnibus spending package is going to be written to dictate spending for the 35 weeks after Jan. 15, when the current continuing resolution expires — the four new and repositioned chairmen, along with their eight colleagues, will each be called on to quickly bless hundreds of small trade-offs and compromises.

“Being an Appropriations cardinal is an incredibly important job with great responsibility,” said Chairman Hal Rogers of Kentucky, because lawmakers must be “responsible and pragmatic leaders who get the job done.” That’s a rare characteristic in the total-budget-breakdown era of the moment.

Rodney Frelinghuysen of New Jersey and Mike Simpson of Idaho are being promoted to more influential subcommittee chairmanships. Ken Calvert of California and Tom Cole of Oklahoma are getting gavels for the first time.

All four were in the GOP minority that voted with most Democrats to enact the fiscal-cliff deal on New Year’s Day and to reopen the government and raise the debt ceiling with almost no strings attached last month. On mostly party lines last year, Calvert hung with the mainstream as often as the average House Republican; the other three had below-average party unity scores.

Simpson and Cole are currently seen as among the members closest to Speaker John A. Boehner, who has frequently deputized them as his surrogates. Oklahoman Cole, for instance, is already representing the interest of the appropriators as one of the four House GOP budget conferees.

The unusual midyear switching comes on the heels of departures by three senior Republicans: C.W. Bill Young of Florida died last month, and Louisiana’s Rodney Alexander and Alabama’s Jo Bonner both resigned their seats over the summer to begin alternative careers.

As was universally expected, Frelinghuysen will take over the Defense subcommittee, where Young held the top GOP seat for almost two decades. With or without a continued sequester, the panel and its Senate counterpart are assigned to allocate slightly more than half of all discretionary money.

Now in his 10th term representing some of the richest exurban towns in New Jersey, where his family has been a political power since the Revolution (yes, that first one), Frelinghuysen is known as a shrewd, if low-key, deal-maker. As one of the House GOP’s more prominent social moderates, he remains an ardent advocate for defense spending but predicts Pentagon budgets are beyond their post-Sept. 11 high-water marks.

Unlike so many defense power players in recent decades, who pushed to steer vast sums from the military-industrial complex back home, Frelinghuysen has just two obvious parochial interests: His district is home to an Army arsenal and the corporate headquarters of defense contractor Honeywell.

Idaho’s Simpson is taking the Energy and Water Development chairmanship that Frelinghuysen has relinquished. The panel’s $30 billion-plus purview extends beyond atomic weapons and nuclear cleanup programs to include all federal dams, waterways and power systems.

This chairmanship will permit Simpson to boast that he’s better positioned than ever to protect the Snake River Valley that’s the economic lifeblood of his state. But his role as an even-more-powerful appropriator will cut both ways: He faces one of the most intense primary challenges of any incumbent — from attorney Bryan Smith, who is raising significant sums thanks to his endorsement by the conservative Club for Growth.

Simpson has been chairman of the Interior-Environment panel; its gavel will now fall to Calvert, a relatively low-key 11th-termer who holds a safe seat in the outer suburbs southeast of Los Angeles. His spending bill, with a grand total of $24 billion to $28 billion, depending on the sequester, is always among the most contentious because it is a magnet for policy riders about environmental regulation.

Alexander’s departure opens up the Legislative Branch panel — it allocates about $4 billion for the operations of Congress and its affiliated operations — and Bonner’s departure meant Cole has just enough seniority to claim what’s customarily the least-sought-after subcommittee chairmanship.

A previous chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee, Cole should be keenly attuned to the sort of hyper-retail politics that make this cardinal (along with the chairman of the House Administration Committee) something like the mayor of the House side of Capitol Hill.

Next up: Filling the three GOP vacancies on Appropriations. The open seats at the junior end of the table probably won’t be assigned by the leadership before the end of the year — in no small part because finding Republicans who both want the assignment, and can withstand it politically, is getting more difficult with each passing budget showdown.

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