Teaching the tea party class how to legislate


Reps. Ander Crenshaw (R-Fla.), left, and Rep. Harold Rogers (R-Ky.). (AP)

When Rep. Mark Amodei (R-Nev.) came to Congress in 2011, federal agencies were canceling conferences scheduled at hotels and resorts in his district after embarrassing news reports exposed lavish government spending on meetings and training sessions.

The decision to cancel was costing the Nevada hotel industry big money. Amodei introduced a bill to allow government agencies to still host conferences and training sessions in resort cities despite the scandal. It went nowhere.

This year, Amodei earned a seat on the powerful House Appropriations Committee that he will use to help his home district, but in a different way than appropriators did in a previous age. In this era of austerity, he can’t send money home — but he can send a message.

Amodei inserted language into a spending bill up for debate in the House this week that will require the Justice Department to end its ban on holding conferences and training sessions in places such as Las Vegas and Reno.

“It’s not going to turn around the recession in western Nevada, but the business from agencies is a piece of the puzzle that kind of kept things going,” Amodei said. “I’m not telling the Justice Department to go to Reno; I’m telling them to let Reno bid and possibly maximize the value for the taxpayer.”

Amodei’s proposal may or may not survive the appropriations process, but it’s his way of letting people back home know that he is taking care of them. He is one of several new lawmakers, mostly elected in 2010 and 2012, who for the first time are actively participating in the process of determining how the government spends its money. The big Republican classes of 2010 and 2012 were part of a wave that came to Washington determined to make sure that the government spent less money. The result was a repeated round of fiscal standoffs that ground Washington to a halt.

This year, House and Senate leaders vowed to let the appropriations process proceed as scheduled after lawmakers approved a two-year budget agreement last year. That budget deal effectively ended the years of fiscal fights between the White House and Republicans in Congress.

Deciding how much money each government agency will get and how those billions will be spent has traditionally been a long, arduous process involving long committee hearings, late-night floor votes and closed-door negotiations infused with horse trading, compromises and concessions. But that process collapsed in recent years in the face of growing partisan rancor.

The hope is that this time it will be different.

The full House began voting on appropriations bills last week — its earliest start since 1974. After approving measures last week to fund the legislative branch and the Department of Veterans Affairs, this week the House is expected to pass the bill funding the Justice and Commerce departments.

The Senate is expected to get started later this month. A final resolution may not come until the end of the year, if at all, meaning lawmakers will need to pass a temporary spending bill before the start of the new fiscal year in October.

But one important difference is that appropriations bills that used to be larded up with “earmarks” that directed billions of dollars to lawmakers’s pet projects — research on rare animals, or a new airport — now will have none of those things. Republican leaders banned such earmarks when they took control of the House in 2011. Pledging to curtail frivolous spending, they removed one of the most enticing and longest-prized outcomes of the appropriations process.

Now, Republican leaders are taking a different approach with newer, fiscally conservative members: Instead of packing the bills with spending earmarks, try inserting a few policy earmarks instead. They will not necessarily increase government spending, and they might help cut spending if they call for curtailing a government program or policy. And they might produce accomplishments that can become campaign fodder back home.

Much of the encouragement from Republican leaders has come from Rep. Peter Roskam (Ill.), a deputy whip with responsibility for helping newer members adjust to life in Congress.

“Members of the class of 2010 and 2012 came in — incredibly accomplished people in other walks of life — into a milieu that doesn’t work the way the private sector works. That was a harsh revelation to them,” he said. “As they have become more sophisticated about how this process works, it’s become clear that the appropriations process is an avenue for them to participate actively.”

“This is really the only game in town right now,” said Robert Bixby, executive director at the nonpartisan Concord Coalition, which tracks fiscal policy. “These appropriations bills are one of the few things that actually have a chance of passing this year. So obviously people are going to be circling around them and trying to get things attached to them so they can talk about them in the election.”

House Appropriations Committee Chairman Harold Rogers (R-Ky.) told reporters last week that he had not noticed a discernible difference in the number of requests for possible amendments or policy riders. But Rep. Ander Crenshaw (R-Fla.), lead sponsor of the bill that sets spending for the Treasury Department and the Internal Revenue Service, said proposals to add to his measure have more than doubled from last year — partly because of recent scandals at the IRS, but also because leaders are encouraging newer members to submit ideas.

“People haven’t seen this process work before,” he said. “Now, they realize that if they’re not on the Appropriations Committee, they can still sit down with us” and try to get amendments added to the bill.

Even ardent tea party conservatives who often clash with GOP leaders are getting in on the action. Rep. Mick Mulvaney (S.C.) has tried for years to stop the Defense Department from moving money for certain projects out of the Pentagon’s budget and into the Overseas Contingency Fund, which pays for ongoing military operations Afghanistan. He blames military leaders with trying to move money into a “slush fund” that covers the cost of new airplanes and operations expenses that have nothing to do with the war.

He is working now to persuade appropriators to stop at least some of the money from moving around. Mulvaney knows he may not succeed, but he still wants to try.

“I think it’s always valuable to tell people what you stand for, and one of the few chances we get to do that is through the appropriations process,” he said.

Rep. Steve Stivers (R-Ohio) submitted two ideas that were included in the Veterans Affairs bill that passed last week. An Iraq war veteran, he asked that language be included to ensure that money is set aside to fund military suicide-prevention programs and to help improve prosthetic limbs used by war amputees.

After more than three years in Washington, Stivers has introduced only two bills that have passed in the House. They went nowhere in the Senate. Now he sees the chance to rack up some accomplishments.

“I feel like if I’m not getting things done, why am I away from my 4-year-old daughter, my 2-year-old son, my wife that I’d rather spend time with?” he said in an interview. “I also get the sense from most people in my district that they want us to work, not fight.”

Ed O’Keefe is a congressional reporter with The Washington Post and covered the 2008 and 2012 presidential and congressional elections.
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