The GOP: The Appropriations Party?

By Marc A. Thiessen
Monday, May 24, 2010;

The rise of the Tea Party movement, the defeat of Bob Bennett, the victory of Rand Paul -- all these have all been driven by a popular backlash against runaway spending in Washington. The Republican Party's hopes of retaking Congress rest on its ability to convince conservative and independent voters that the GOP will restore fiscal discipline if trusted with power this fall.

Yet take a close look at the people sitting around the table at the Senate Republican leadership meetings. There are nine senators at that table -- and all but three are members of the powerful and exclusive club that decides how American tax dollars are doled out: the Senate Appropriations Committee.

Outside the halls of Congress, Republican politicians are divided into moderates and conservatives. But in the culture of the Senate, the real distinction is not between left and right but between appropriators and the rest. Appropriators hold the purse strings and dispense government largesse. They cut the backroom deals and decide who does and does not get an earmark. They are courted by lobbyists and feted by industries eager to get a piece of the government pie. They are the ones who gave us the "bridge to nowhere" and other infamous special deals. In other words, they represent everything that the grass-roots movement for fiscal discipline sweeping our country detests.

Why do they dominate the GOP leadership? Republican leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) is a member of the Appropriations Committee. So are Lamar Alexander (Tenn.) and Lisa Murkowski (Alaska), the chairman and vice chair of the Republican Conference, the formal organization of the Republican senators. In addition to these elected leaders, McConnell has three appointed "consiglieres" who have a seat at all leadership meetings -- and all of them are appropriators. Judd Gregg (N.H.) is not only an appropriator but also the Republican author of TARP legislation and briefly President Obama's choice for commerce secretary. Bob Bennett just lost the Republican nomination in Utah after campaigning on the fact that he was an appropriator -- promising he could deliver for Utah because of his seniority on the energy and water appropriations subcommittee. Kay Bailey Hutchison was inexplicably added to the GOP leadership team after losing her gubernatorial primary in Texas, in a campaign where she declared that her success in bringing home the bacon for Texas should be "celebrated and appreciated." The only members of the Republican leadership who are not appropriators are John Kyl (Ariz.), John Thune (S.D.) and John Cornyn (Tex.).

Needless to say, this is not a leadership team that reflects the sentiments of the 2010 electorate.

The number of appropriators in the GOP leadership is not only out of step with grass-roots sentiment, it is also disproportionate to the rest of the Republican caucus. Of the 41 Republicans in the Senate, only 12 -- less than 30 percent -- have seats on the Appropriations Committee. Yet appropriators make up fully two-thirds of the Senate Republican leadership. Indeed, half of the Republicans on the Appropriations Committee also have seats at the GOP leadership table.

Think it doesn't matter? Think again. One of the top issues driving the grass-roots movement for fiscal discipline is earmark reform. Earmarks have become symbols of profligacy and corruption that have alienated Americans from their government. As I pointed out in this column recently, earmarks grew dramatically the last time Republicans controlled Congress -- from 1,318 in 1994 to 13,977 in 2005. To win in November, it is critical that the GOP demonstrate it has recovered from its addiction to earmarks -- which is why House Republican leaders recently enacted a ban on all earmarks for the remainder of the current Congress.

In March, Sen. Jim DeMint (S.C.) offered an amendment that would have enacted a similar ban in the Senate. It failed. How did the Senate Republican leadership vote? All of the non-appropriators -- Kyl, Thune and Cornyn -- voted in favor of banning earmarks. The only appropriator to vote for the earmark ban was McConnell. Alexander, Gregg, Murkowski and Hutchison all voted to protect their power to dole out special-interest earmarks (Bennett skipped the vote but attacked his Republican primary opponents for supporting the ban).

As his earmark vote indicates, McConnell understands the importance of restoring the GOP's reputation on fiscal discipline. He has a tough job and almost no margin for error -- just one Republican defection on any issue gives the Democrats virtual carte blanche to enact their agenda. He has done an admirable job maintaining GOP unity. But he would be better served with a little more diversity among his closest advisers. The people sitting around the leadership table do not represent his broader caucus, Republican voters or the independents the GOP needs to attract to win in November. Indeed, two of them -- Bennett and Hutchison -- have just been rejected by their own constituents.

Come fall, Judd Gregg and Bob Bennett are retiring, opening up two seats at the leadership table. McConnell would be wise to use that opportunity to reach out to the conservative insurgents who are challenging the Republican establishment -- by bringing some senators who share their sentiments into the leadership tent.

Marc A. Thiessen, a visiting fellow with the American Enterprise Institute, is the author of the book "Courting Disaster." He writes a weekly column for The Post.

© 2010 The Washington Post Company