Oct 03 2012
National Journal Daily
By Katy O'Donnell
The next Congress will wrestle with weighty decisions over government spending on Day One. Any year-end deal on the fiscal cliff will likely include only the broad outlines on spending levels, leaving it to the committees to sort out the details in early 2013.
But a vacancy in one of four top spots on the two committees with final say on discretionary spending is getting little attention in the final weeks before the lame-duck session. While the race for the top Democratic spot on the House Appropriations Committee is tight, there is less daylight between appropriators than there is between members of most other committees, making the outcome of the race far less important than the machinations involved in hammering out a sweeping deal on the fiscal cliff.
The retirement of ranking member Norm Dicks, D-Wash., leaves the top Democratic post on the House committee up for grabs, with Reps. Marcy Kaptur, D-Ohio, and Nita Lowey, D-N.Y., vying to become the first woman to hold the post.
Speculation has swirled that Lowey’s friend Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., will enter the race as a dark horse. Her office declined to comment.
Lowey and Kaptur both bill themselves as tough negotiators who can reach across the aisle. Lowey is seen as the leadership favorite, given Kaptur’s longstanding friction with Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and reputation as an occasional maverick (she voted against the DREAM Act and was a stubborn holdout on the health care reform law). But there’s not a lot of political distance between the women; Kaptur and Lowey both earned a composite liberal score in the low 70s in the latest National Journal vote ratings. Both have put in serious time on the committee-- Kaptur joined in 1989, and Lowey in 1993. Seniority has traditionally decided the panel’s leadership, but Lowey’s endorsement by Rep. Jim Moran, D-Va., who dropped out of the race last week, might give her an edge.
Both Lowey and Kaptur support earmarks, putting them in sync with the three people already leading the appropriations process on Capitol Hill. All want to protect Congress’s power of the purse against encroachment by the executive branch.
Appropriators always say they want to resume the regular order – passing each of 12 appropriations bills individually before the start of a new fiscal year on Oct. 1, a feat they have not achieved in nearly 20 years. The more pressing goal is simply to make sure the government does not shut down amid the chaos and grandstanding likely to accompany negotiations on deficit reduction and possibly broad tax reform.
The Senate committee’s top two members, Chairman Daniel Inouye, D-Hi., and ranking member Thad Cochran, R-Miss., are sticking around, as is House Appropriations Chairman Hal Rogers, R-Ky. In keeping with the committees’ reputation for bipartisanship, none are flame throwers. Should Republicans gain control of the Senate in the election, the Appropriations committee’s main priorities probably would not change much under Cochran’s stewardship.
Inouye and Cochran -- who was once nicknamed the “quiet persuader” by Time – are widely respected in both parties. Cochran chaired the committee from 2005 to 2007 but was criticized for heavily using earmarks before the current ban took effect. As former head of the GOP caucus, Cochran is usually a reliable Republican vote, but he has crossed party lines, such as when opposed restrictions on stem cell research. Still, the longstanding tradition of bipartisanship on the appropriations committees might not prove as helpful as it once was. Larger ideological debates between Democrats and Republicans over the budget and taxes will likely obscure the more mundane duty of managing the spending details.
While much has been made of appropriators’ loss of clout, their ability to make backroom deals is not vilified the way it once was, now that Congress appears incapable of compromise on bigger decisions. Amid the squabbling on Capitol Hill, the appropriators have solidified a reputation for being the adults in the room who can come to the rescue to help seal a deal at the last minute and whose unofficial veto ability remains largely intact. Their power may be of a lower-profile variety, in other words, but reports of its death have been greatly exaggerated.