Rep. Tom Coburn, the relentlessly principled Republican from Muskogee, Okla., is assailed by the Washington political establishment as a dissident making life miserable for rookie House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert. The blame is misplaced. Hastert's real problem is Jim Dyer.

Not many people outside the capital's government-lobbyist loop have ever heard of James W. Dyer, the 56-year-old staff director of the House Appropriations Committee. But he wields enormous power in setting spending at levels that were hardly imaginable when Republicans won control of the House in 1994. His sway is permitted by the mind-set of the "appropriators" -- the bipartisan subculture on Capitol Hill that is in the business of spending the taxpayers' money.

Coburn, returning to his obstetric practice back home in 2001 as a self-limited three-termer, is waging what would seem a quixotic assault on the appropriators' redoubt. That is why he filed 115 amendments to a pork-laden Agriculture Department spending bill, forcing an embarrassed Hastert to pull the bill off the floor before the Memorial Day recess. That is why he again caused trouble last week by insisting that the legislative-branch appropriation be reduced.

In both cases, Coburn could claim partial success and hopes of achieving his larger goal: staying within the spending caps prescribed by the 1997 balanced budget agreement, which would leave room for a tax cut. The appropriators are frantic to remove the caps, but Coburn is urging his colleagues -- including Hastert -- to heed the anti-spending Republican base. Indeed, since the blowup over the agriculture bill, the speaker has moved toward Coburn.

The problem with the appropriators was recognized by Newt Gingrich when he became speaker in 1995. He reached down five places in seniority to tap Rep. Bob Livingston of Louisiana as Appropriations chairman. He picked the wrong man. When Livingston moved into his new Capitol office, he placed behind his desk a portrait of his mentor: the late liberal Republican Rep. Silvio Conte of Massachusetts, who as the committee's longtime ranking minority member was the quintessential appropriator. Soon afterward, Livingston retained some 50 Democratic staff members, suggesting that the work was too demanding for Republican number crunchers.

Livingston next hired Dyer, then chief lobbyist for Philip Morris but a veteran civil servant with a long resume including Appropriations Committee service. Dyer is now one of Capitol Hill's most powerful figures. If he has his own agenda, as conservative House members grumble, it is embraced by his nominal bosses on the committee -- including Livingston's successor as chairman, Rep. C. W. (Bill) Young of Florida. But Coburn has confronted Dyer's authority head on.

The most aggressive appropriator is the committee's fourth-ranking Republican, John Edward Porter, who represents the Chicago north suburbs and supports abortion rights, gun control and the National Endowment for the Arts. The foremost advocate of breaking the spending caps, Porter loves to put spending into an omnibus session-ending bill where he exerts the maximum leverage.

Porter fits neatly into the bipartisan culture of the appropriators. The agriculture subcommittee's ranking Democrat, Rep. Marcy Kaptur of Ohio, a labor-union liberal, won Republican colleagues' approval of $5.1 million for "wood utilization research" (a project that has cost more than $50 million since 1985). Pleading for money to fight hardwood lumber sap stain, she told the House: "I have a little coffee table in my house, and I cannot get that sap to stop staining up through the covering that is on it." That was enough to convince the House, but Kaptur voted against the bill in final passage anyway because it reduced farm aid.

Coburn did succeed in eliminating from the legislative-branch appropriation $3.4 million to renovate the Rayburn House Office Building cafeteria. But while cutting $28 million from the bill, he could not block $170,000 to build a new rostrum for Banking Committee Chairman Jim Leach or $153,000 to design renovations for a little park on Capitol Hill (a project with an ultimate $1.5 million price tag).

In Coburn's opinion, these spending practices will flourish as long as the appropriators maintain their separate power base. When Hastert last week quoted Benjamin Franklin's famous warning that "We must all hang together, or assuredly we shall all hang separately," those words, hopefully, were directed not at Tom Coburn but at Jim Dyer and the members of Congress who empower him.

(C)1999, Creators Syndicate Inc.