Hill staff directors typically are relatively bland figures who operate in the shadows of their bosses and rarely volunteer an opinion to outsiders. Not so James W. Dyer, the Republican clerk of the House Appropriations Committee, whose occasionally blunt assessments have gotten him into trouble with the right wing of his party.
Back in June, for example, as committee members struggled with a GOP leadership strategy for trying to pass fiscal 2000 spending bills under tight budget constraints, Dyer said the approach was as effective as rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. "We simply don't have enough money" to pass the bills, Dyer complained to a reporter.
While his comments proved prophetic, as the appropriations process slid into a morass, they infuriated some conservatives, who view Dyer as Congress's chief agent of excessive spending. Twice this year, conservative columnist Robert Novak has written stinging indictments of Dyer, dubbing him "the imperial staffer" who wields more power than House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.).
Yesterday, Dyer was back in the spotlight. Rep. David R. Obey (Wis.), the ranking Appropriations Democrat, and Chairman C.W. Bill Young (R-Fla.) rose at the beginning of a committee markup to defend Dyer from Novak's attacks.
"His [Dyer's] only sin has been to speak the truth," Obey said.
Certainly, nobody is more surprised--or appalled--by all the controversy and attention than Dyer, 56, an erudite and engaging technocrat who once served as a foreign policy adviser in the Reagan and Bush administrations.
A self-described "Type B" personality who feels most at ease operating behind the scenes, Dyer says his main responsibilities are to supervise a staff of 145 and serve as Young's chief adviser and liaison to the Republican and Democratic leadership and the White House.
"The key to my job is to let my people--my boss and the 'cardinals' and everybody I work for--know what's going on, tell them the truth, let them make the decisions," Dyer explained during a recent interview. "I am not a voting member, and because I'm an older person, I have a deep-seated and a strong understanding of the difference between staff and members, and I try never to step over that line."
But Dyer is hardly a stranger to controversy.
As a legislative affairs official at the State Department and the White House during the mid-1980s, Dyer was in the thick of the controversy over the Reagan administration's aid to the Nicaraguan contra rebels. And as director of Washington relations for Philip Morris Cos. in the early 1990s, Dyer was the author of scores of strategic planning memorandums for the tobacco giant that became highly controversial after they were obtained by an anti-tobacco group.
And now Dyer holds one of the toughest staff jobs on Capitol Hill, working closely with lawmakers struggling to carve out spending bills that will pass muster with their colleagues and the White House. He was appointed staff director and clerk after the 1994 GOP takeover of Congress.
At the height of the so-called Republican Revolution, Dyer said one of his chief goals was to help change the Appropriations Committee's culture from one of spending to one of slashing.
The Republican drive to control spending culminated in a 1997 balanced budget deal with President Clinton that imposed progressively tougher spending caps aimed at gradually eliminating the deficit. But practically overnight, a booming economy transformed the once huge deficits into surpluses that are projected to total $3 trillion over the coming decade.
Conservatives are pressing the House to stick to those caps, saying that doing so is essential to fiscal discipline. Dyer has drawn their wrath because he has articulated a view shared by many on the Appropriations Committee that those restrictions are unrealistic in a time of mounting surpluses. Dyer argues that the lawmakers have been frugal, but that unless Congress is willing to slash popular programs across the board, the caps are no longer politically viable.
"I believe it is one of my responsibilities to tell the people I work for what these numbers translate to," Dyer said. "Are we cutting education or not? Are we increasing defense or not?"
But Dyer's style and views have rubbed some members the wrong way. Moreover, because he must play the role of traffic cop with members' spending requests, Dyer has had to disappoint many.
"It's not Mr. Dyer. It's the control of the staff. There's nobody more knowledgeable around here on those [appropriations] issues than Jim Dyer. But the system setup is to give way too much control to a nonelected official," said Rep. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.). "The end result of that is way too much spending and a lack of knowledge [by] members of Congress of what's in the bills."
Despite occasionally talking out of school, Dyer nonetheless enjoys broad support among the leadership, including such conservatives as Majority Leader Richard K. Armey (R-Tex.) and Majority Whip Tom Delay (R-Tex.).
Said Armey: "There's a tendency to bum-rap staff around here, but it's just not right."
Capitol Players; James W. Dyer
Title: Clerk and staff director, House Appropriations Committee
Family: Married to Margia L. Carter
Education: Bachelor's degree, University of Scranton; graduate studies in legislative affairs, George Washington University
Previous jobs: Assistant to Pennsylvania lieutenant governor; aide to then-Rep. Joseph M. McDade (R-Pa.); director of public affairs for a division of United Technologies Corp; legislative affairs official for State Department and White House during the Reagan and Bush administrations; director of Washington relations, Philip Morris Cos.
Hobbies: Astronomy, Shakespeare.