The Appropriator in Winter: Frelinghuysen’s Last Stand

With re-election out of the way, Approps chairman seeks productive final year

House Appropriations Chairman Rodney Frelinghuysen, left, talks with Florida Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart at a hearing last June. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
House Appropriations Chairman Rodney Frelinghuysen, left, talks with Florida Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart at a hearing last June. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted February 5, 2018 at 5:03am

New Jersey Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen is giving up the throne of what used to be the most sought-after seat at the Capitol after just one year.

The House Appropriations chairman is going out amid a blizzard of Republican infighting; lackluster presidential approval dragging down many of his “blue state” GOP colleagues; the increasing polarization of the electorate; and greater influence of Southern and Western conservatives at the expense of Northeastern moderates like himself.

And then there is the long, slow decline of the appropriations process, which lost its sheen for many when earmarks were banned, discretionary spending was slashed to the bone and “government by CR” became the rule rather than the exception.

It’s enough to make even the scion of a political family with its roots in the Continental Congress, who dodged mortar fire and built roads while serving his country in Vietnam, want to run for the exits.

Frelinghuysen, who announced his retirement last Monday, at times must have felt a little like Eleanor of Aquitaine’s character in the 1968 classic “The Lion in Winter,” who says after being imprisoned by her husband King Henry II of England: “What family doesn’t have its ups and downs?”

The New Jersey Republican spent that Monday morning calling and emailing a handful of colleagues to tell them that after nearly 24 years as a member of Congress and just over a year as chairman of one of the more powerful committees he would be retiring.

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The decision came after months of speculation about his political future amid lower-than-expected fundraising and blowback from conservatives after he initially withheld support for the bill to “repeal and replace” the 2010 health care law. There were also whispers of an effort to oust Frelinghuysen from the chairmanship for his vote against the GOP tax code overhaul.

Last week’s sudden announcement, however, still took some by surprise. Frelinghuysen had hired Michael DuHaime, a partner at Mercury Public Affairs and a longtime Republican strategist, to run his campaign. He said in early January he was “having so much fun,” when asked about speculation he would leave Congress after just one term as Appropriations chairman.

“I’m just looking forward to continuing my work to get the [fiscal] 2018 bills finally across the finish line,″ Frelinghuysen said on Jan. 10. “And I can’t wait until we get the president’s budget. And then we can get the [fiscal] 2019 bills together. Why would I want to miss that opportunity?”

‘24 years is enough’

After making the decision to retire, Frelinghuysen spoke with some of his subcommittee chairs. But many ended up learning about his upcoming departure and the race to succeed him in various news reports.

“I wasn’t planning for chairman of Appropriations, so it was certainly a surprise,” said Oklahoma Rep. Tom Cole, who was exchanging email with Frelinghuysen shortly before the official retirement statement was sent out.

Cole, who chairs the Labor-HHS-Education Subcommittee and is officially running for the chairmanship, urged Frelinghuysen to reconsider. But the quick response he got was no.

“The telling line was ‘24 years is enough,’” Cole said.

Cole didn’t expect Frelinghuysen to retire — despite the rumors — because he had been raising money, had his re-election campaign in place and had “one of the very best political” strategists in DuHaime running his campaign.

“I don’t think there’s any doubt he would have won his election. I don’t think there’s any doubt he would have been chairman again,” Cole said, waving off speculation that leadership would have removed Frelinghuysen as a chairman because he voted against the tax bill.

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Frelinghuysen said last Tuesday that his decision wasn’t linked to his tough re-election campaign, his voting record, or the appropriations process. He also noted that he’s been in Congress for 12 terms — “one more term than my father.” Rep. Peter Frelinghuysen Jr., who died in 2011, served 11 terms from 1953 to 1975.

Like many moderate-leaning Republicans in parts of the country where President Donald Trump is less popular, Democrats have been hungrily eyeing Frelinghuysen’s seat.

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Trump carried his 11th District by less than a point, after the prior two GOP presidential candidates took it handily; Frelinghuysen’s 2016 margin of victory also shrunk substantially from previous cycles, although he still took 58 percent of the vote.

Still, political handicappers had pegged Frelinghuysen as the favorite, which makes his decision a troubling development for the GOP.

“I’m pretty confident that if I were to run, I would have been successful,” Frelinghuysen said, later adding that he’s “looking forward to getting back to New Jersey and doing some other things with” his life.

‘Regular order’

Frelinghuysen said he plans to focus on completing the fiscal 2018 appropriations process and re-establishing “regular order” for the House’s fiscal 2019 appropriations process — shorthand for passing the 12 spending bills on time — before he leaves Congress.

That work will keep him in Washington and not solely focused on re-election, which was a factor in his decision. “Obviously, focusing on that makes it difficult to spend a lot of time campaigning back in the district, so there was sort of a choice that I had to make,” Frelinghuysen said.

Once he had made his decision, Frelinghuysen chose to only tell a small group of lawmakers, including a few of his GOP subcommittee “cardinals.” He informed Energy-Water Chairman Mike Simpson of Idaho; Interior-Environment Chairman Ken Calvert of California as well as Cole before the announcement, for instance. But State-Foreign Operations Chairman and former full committee Chairman Harold Rogers of Kentucky, Commerce-Justice-Science Chairman John Culberson of Texas, and Military Construction-VA Chairman Charlie Dent of Pennsylvania, who is also retiring, were not told.

Frelinghuysen also didn’t tell the panel’s top Democrat, Nita M. Lowey of New York, or give a heads up to Senate Appropriations Chairman Thad Cochran of Mississippi. House Speaker Paul D. Ryan’s office did not respond to a request for comment on when and how he learned of Frelinghuysen’s retirement plans.

Simpson, who announced Friday he was joining the race for top Republican on Appropriations, got a call from Frelinghuysen about 15 minutes before the official announcement went out. The Idaho congressman thought his decision to retire was based on several factors.

“I think it’s a combination of things. One, is he has a tough re-election and two is that he’s kind of frustrated with the way we’re not getting our appropriations work done,” Simpson said. “I think it’s also that he sees a lot of his friends retiring.”

Not much ‘fun’ anymore

All 12 of the House Appropriations-drafted fiscal 2018 bills have been approved by the House, but the spending levels they were written to as well as the conservative policy included in that legislation meant the bills were dead on arrival in the Senate. Before any appropriations bills can be signed into law, congressional leaders need to agree on spending levels. So far, those talks have been between the party leaders in each chamber and the White House. They’ve also largely left out appropriators.

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While Frelinghuysen controls the committee schedule, a difficult primary season could lead to a shortened legislative calendar and a desire by Republican leaders to keep contentious bills off the floor — that could include appropriations bills that will substantially increase discretionary spending and drive up the deficit. It’s also unlikely that leadership will allow an open amendment process on spending bills while fighting to maintain the majority. That means any potential debate on spending bills will be highly restricted.

And a bad result for Republicans in November would affect the timing and politics of the appropriations process during the lame duck session that would follow.

It would also render the current four-way race for Appropriations chairman among Republicans, reminiscent of King Henry II’s children competing for the throne, moot.

That fact is not lost on Simpson, who is fourth in committee seniority behind Frelinghuysen. “We need to make sure that we maintain the majority first,” he said.