The third party on Capitol Hill, Washington's gray-haired conservatives used to grumble, was the "Appropriators Party" -- an autonomous, bipartisan bloc of obdurate spenders and shameless porkers who marched in lockstep with their committee leaders and were rewarded with the choicest earmarks.
But a rump of conservative Republicans on the House Appropriations Committee has quietly rebelled this year against the committee leaders by repeatedly doing what was once unthinkable for an appropriator: voting on the House floor against the chairman on appropriations amendments, and even appropriations bills.
Even more unfathomable, a handful of Republican appropriators have voted against spending bills.
"I didn't sign a contract with the Appropriations Committee," rookie appropriator Republican Tom Graves of Georgia told me, "promising to approve everything that comes out of the committee and oppose everything that would change that." Graves was explicitly flouting what used to be an iron law for his committee: Appropriators stand united on the floor.
Rep. Jeff Flake of Arizona leads the small group of conservative dissidents on the Appropriations Committee. Getting Flake onto the committee had been a cause celebre for movement conservatives for years, and when House Speaker John Boehner agreed, it was an early sign that the Tea Party was exerting some real influence on the House GOP leadership.
During the February debate over H.R. 1, the omnibus spending bill for the current fiscal year, Flake voted for 14 different floor amendments opposed by Chairman Hal Rogers (Ky.) as well as former chairman Bill Young (Fla.), who is the most senior Republican on the committee. This didn't happen before the Tea Parties.
In 2006 and 2007, when Flake offered a series of floor amendments to trim pork-barrel items (like upgrades of city-owned swimming pools), Republican appropriators opposed Flake en bloc.
Today, not only are chairman-opposed amendments an open question, but even entire appropriations bills are fair game for committee Republicans -- Flake was one of three GOPers to vote no on H.R. 1 on the floor.
This used to be excommunicable. In 1995, freshman Mark Neumann voted against the defense appropriations bill (in protest over President Clinton's unauthorized intervention in Bosnia-Herzegovina). For this insubordination, Appropriations Chairman Bob Livingston kicked Neumann off the committee.
Where Neumann stood alone, Flake has a posse of anti-appropriators. Wyoming Rep. Cynthia Lummis, in her second term, is the league leader in bucking the committee leadership -- she voted against Rogers and Young 16 times during the H.R. 1 floor debate, and with Flake she opposed the entire bill in committee.
Rehberg, Graves, and Kevin Yoder of Kansas also reached double digits on voting against Rogers and Young.
Graves is a true Tea Partier, elected in a special election in 2010 with the backing of Tea Party groups. He advocates statutory budget caps tied to gross domestic product as a way to "handcuff" congressional spending.
Yoder, a freshman, was an appropriator in the Kansas Legislature, and a card-carrying member of the moderate wing of the state's very divided GOP. But in 2010, Yoder ran for Congress as a conservative, and now as a Washington appropriator, he's voting like a conservative.
The fifth anti-appropriator is even more clearly a convert. Denny Rehberg, of Montana, has sat on the committee since 2004, but only this year he started voting a bit like Flake. Rehberg had opposed all of Flake's anti-pork amendments in 2006 and 2007, but on H.R. 1 this year, Rehberg bucked Rogers and Young on 11 amendments.
Perhaps explaining the change of heart, Rehberg is running for Senate, and some fiscal conservatives, displeased with Rehberg's record over the past decade, are looking to give him a Tea Party-like challenge.
What has weakened the Appropriations Party? What's the difference between today and 1995, when Livingston kept the upstart conservatives in check?
The first difference is the more explicit tension between the party's leadership and its younger dissidents: Speaker Boehner is constantly wary of alienating the Tea Partiers and other conservatives. Expelling Flake, Lummis or Graves from the committee would spark a revolt.
Second is power in numbers. "They do caucus," one GOP aide said of the anti-appropriators.
A third difference: the earmark ban. Short of kicking members off the committee, the chairman used to use earmarks -- the promise of more pork or the threat to strip existing pork -- to enforce loyalty from other appropriators. That's why Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., calls earmarks "the gateway drug to a spending addiction," and it's why banning them could save taxpayers much more than a more simplistic accounting would suggest.
Even after the current budget skirmishes end, spending will be a contentious battleground. And in that fight, the anti-appropriators could be the taxpayers' best friends.
Timothy P. Carney, The Examiner's senior political columnist, can be contacted at email@example.com. His column appears Monday and Thursday, and his stories and blog posts appear on ExaminerPolitics.com.