Appropriators watch their power shrink

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Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, January 5, 2011

The slights keep coming for the once-mighty congressional appropriations committees, but at least the latest insult was of their own doing.

When House Republicans unveiled details of their plan for a 5 percent cut in funding for legislative offices and committees, they included an additional slash at the House Appropriations Committee. The appropriators asked for and got a 9 percent cut in their budget as part of the resolution, which is expected to be approved by the full House this week.

"Congress must begin immediately to reduce spending, and these budget cuts should start here and now - in our own offices. . . . I have directed my own Committee budget to be cut by nearly double the amount of reductions proposed for other House offices," Rep. Harold Rogers (R-Ky.), the incoming chairman of the panel, said Tuesday in a statement.

The appropriators' voluntary 9 percent cut is part of incoming House speaker John A. Boehner's pledge to shave as much as $35 million from Congress's own multibillion-dollar budget. While more than $8 million of those cuts are slated to come from committees such as Appropriations, the bulk of the savings will come from across-the-board reductions of 5 percent in the budgets allotted to the 435 House members' legislative offices.

The additional cut to appropriators is the latest sign of how much things have changed on Capitol Hill over the past decade. Just a few years back, the saying in Congress was that there were Republicans, there were Democrats, and then there were appropriators, a powerful band of bipartisan barons who, in 2010 alone, doled out $1.1 trillion in federal funding.

Now, the committee has been stripped of its most powerful prerogatives, seen its budget slashed and, in another symbolic dig, been relegated to less glamorous office space.

In a real estate game of musical chairs, the committee's top staff members have lost their prime space on the second floor just off the House chamber, looking onto the West Front of the Capitol. That space, with a huge balcony that provides some of the best views of the Mall, was claimed by Boehner (R-Ohio), who has been a longtime opponent of appropriators and their proclivity for stuffing their bills with thousands of earmarks, or pet spending provisions.

Moreover, incoming House minority whip Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.) declined to take the third-floor space where past minority whips have been relegated - across from one of the press galleries, with a less-distinguished view of the East Front. Instead, he has settled into spacious first-floor offices once occupied by midlevel appropriations staffers, who, like the more senior staffers, lost their own wonderful views of the West Front.

So appropriations staff members have relocated to the old minority whip offices and other spots scattered around the Capitol.

Those are just the symbolic cuts.

More substantively, the Appropriations Committee will no longer be allowed to place earmarks into the 12 annual spending bills that fund the federal government. While those line items accounted for only 1 percent of discretionary federal spending, this surrender of power represents the end of an era in which the committee provided more than $10 billion for projects each year, helping lawmakers prove they could deliver to constituents. As federal red ink has swelled, earmarks - like the committee's own budget - became a symbol of largesse that didn't comport with the times.

Appropriators were also compelled to accept into their ranks the biggest thorn in their side for the past six years, Rep. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), an ardent opponent of earmarks and spending, as well as three freshmen who ran as anti-spending hawks.

The overall membership on Appropriations has been reduced by nearly 20 percent, falling from 60 lawmakers to 50 this year.

Even the panel's Senate counterpart has lost its swagger. Just before Christmas, Senate Democrats thought they had cobbled together a massive spending bill to fund the government through fiscal year 2011, including $8 billion in earmarks that had been drafted in a bipartisan manner. Then, after Senate GOP leaders objected, Republicans on the Appropriations Committee backed out of their deal, torpedoing what might have been the last big effort to deliver pork for lawmakers' districts.

Instead, a stripped-down resolution keeping the government funded at 2010 levels, minus any earmarks, was approved.


© 2011 The Washington Post Company

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