Now that Congress is back in session the final committee rosters are finally beginning to take shape. With large numbers of new members, many of which campaigned to radically change how Washington works, an interesting dynamic to watch is how these folks will fit into the permanent and often change-resistant legislative structure. Traditionally, plum committee assignments are given to those members who “earn” them through working on behalf of their party’s interests in ways such as fundraising and voting consistently with the leadership.
This norm has historically been especially strong on the Senate side where members vigorously protect their prerogatives, especially when confronted with ambitious newcomers. In the Senate “club” it is often advised that freshmen walk softly and learn how to do the job before they set out to upset the apple cart.
Nowhere is this more the case than on the Appropriations Committee. While the recent Congresses have seen a rise in partisan voting and a general decline in civility, appropriators have acted to ensure that their panel is the last bastion of an older, more genteel, Congress. With the responsibility of doling out billions of dollars to thousands of projects, the Appropriations Committee has historically rewarded bipartisan deal-making as opposed to ideological warfare. Members of both parties would carve up the federal pie, send money home to the constituents, and everyone would be happy—and re-elected.
Things may, however, be changing for appropriators.
The first sign of change came with the movement to ban earmarks. While earmarks have been common across committees, they have been the modus operandi for appropriators. When the House GOP set about choosing the new chairman of the spending panel, the candidates went out of their way to pledge fealty to the anti-earmark, pro-austerity wave that was running through the caucus. Harold Rogers of Kentucky, the ultimate winner, will have the unenviable task of weaning his panel, including himself, from the old way of doing business.
On the Senate side, word comes that an unprecedented six freshman have been appointed to the committee. As Mitch McConnell, himself a prodigious earmarker, tries to keep pace with his colleagues across the Capitol he must balance the enthusiasm of his new members with the inherent conservatism of the Senate. An examination of these new appropriators reveals a mix of establishment-type Republicans, coupled with a dash of Tea Party flavor. Four of the six come to the panel with long periods of previous congressional service. Illinois moderate Mark Kirk served on the House appropriations panel during is five terms so his assignment, despite the fact that he’s a freshman, doesn’t seem unusual. Further establishment ties can be seen in Missouri’s Roy Blunt who served in the House leadership as Whip and Indiana’s Dan Coats who has a decade of previous Senate service on his resume. Though a solid conservative, Kansas’ Jerry Moran demonstrated a strong pragmatic streak during his seven terms of House service. North Dakota’s John Hoeven comes to the Senate having served a decade as the state’s governor. While all of these five are freshman they would seem to fit the mold of past appropriators in terms temperament and style. They’ve all served numerous years in government and have demonstrated a willingness to protect local interests.
The one wildcard assignment is Wisconsin’s Ron Johnson. A political unknown prior to his campaign against Russ Feingold, Johnson was an unapologetic carrier of the Tea Party banner. During one of their debates, a surreal point/counterpoint on Atlas Shrugged broke out which surely left many of the viewers befuddled. It will be interesting to watch how Johnson approaches his new perch on Appropriations. Surely Tea Partiers hope he will follow the lead of another Wisconsinite who received a coveted Appropriations spot early in his career, former Representative and 2010 gubernatorial candidate Mark Neumann. A member of the class of 1994, Neumann rankled many in his party with his willingness to attack Republican spending priorities, to the point where he was kicked off the committee by then chairman Bob Livingston.
Interestingly, Senator Johnson was absent from yesterday’s kickoff of the Senate Tea Party Caucus. Arguing that he is more interested in working from within traditional GOP channels, Johnson’s absence raises the fear among many on the right that he is going to settle into the role of an insider. Whether his assignment to the Appropriations Committee is a further example of this is yet to be seen. What is undeniable is that the committee, long a reservoir of log-rolling and back slapping, has undergone a dramatic degree of change.