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Congressional Strongmen, Stripped Of Superpowers

Oct 23, 2011
Originally published on October 23, 2011 5:19 pm

Since the supercommittee was formed in August to find federal deficit cuts, the House and Senate appropriations committees have seen their responsibilities wane. But not too long ago, they were the most exclusive clubs in Congress and it took years to get assigned to one.

Appropriations 'Lost Its Luster'

Rep. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., finally landed a spot on the House Appropriations Committee last fall. That's because few others wanted the job — he jokes to Guy Raz, host of weekends on All Things Considered.

"It's kind of lost its luster for most people," Flake says.

In a recent issue of the The New Republic, reporter Eliza Gray says it is quite possibly "the least fun time to be an appropriator on the record."

For most of the past few decades, appropriators decided how the federal budget would be spent, and consequently had a lot of power. In fact, the subcommittee chairmen were known around Capitol Hill as the "cardinals" — like those who run the Catholic Church.

But over the summer, President Obama and congressional Republicans took that power away from appropriations and put six Democrats and six Republicans on the new Joint Selection Committee on Deficit Reduction — the official name for the supercommittee — to do the work instead.

Rep. Jim Moran, D-Va., a senior member of the House Appropriations Committee, says "the supercommittee is an indictment of the whole congressional process."

"It shows that the system is dysfunctional today," Moran says. "What we have is a system that's been turned upside down."

'The System Worked'

Moran remembers when being on the committee was a mark of serious power.

After Mt. Saint Helens erupted in 1980, Sen. Warren Magnuson, D-Wa., who was chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee at the time, was able to get $1 billion in emergency aid for his home state.

Another senator, Daniel Inouye of Hawaii, wondered why he couldn't get that kind of money, Moran recalls.

"Sen. Inouye said, 'Maggie [Magnuson], I have thousands of volcanos. Why can't I get a billion dollars for each volcano?' And Maggie put his hand on Dan Inouye's hand, who was young at the time, and said, 'Danny, your time will come.'

"Well, Danny's time has come. He takes very good care of Hawaii. You know, the system worked," Moran says.

Although appropriators earned a reputation for pork-barrel politics, Moran says that's an oversimplification. He says major projects we now take for granted could never get off the ground because the Republican leadership has banned so-called earmarks.

Moran points to a project he successfully funded while on the committee — fixing the Woodrow Wilson Bridge, a major thoroughfare that connects Virginia to Maryland.

"We pushed for three years to get that earmark in place. We did it. And the whole country benefits," he says. "We're proud of it. But there was no conceivable way you could have ever built the Woodrow Wilson Bridge to handle the East Coast traffic unless it had been an earmark."

Biding Time

In addition to their diminished power, House appropriators have been displaced from their room in the Capitol with a view of the National Mall; a women's bathroom is being built there. Moran says it's symbolic.

"It's a diminution of the power of appropriators," Moran says.

Rep. Flake agrees.

"I'm not saying there's not things to do. But I think we could certainly make use of our time better if we were conducting more oversight and doing more hearings," Flake says.

Flake and his fellow appropriators are more or less biding their time until Nov. 23, when the supercommittee has to present Congress with a spending plan. The plan is expected to lay out billions of dollars in spending cuts.

"That's pretty sad commentary on where we've come to as a Congress in not being able to prioritize, but if it's the only way we can cut spending, then that may be what we have to do," Flake says.

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GUY RAZ, HOST:

Now while voters in Tunisia are about to hand a lot of power to that new assembly, here in Washington, one of the most important congressional committees is seeing its power slip away. Not too long ago, the most exclusive club in Congress was the Appropriations Committee. To get assigned to that committee took years.

Well, Republican Jeff Flake, of Arizona, finally landed a spot on Appropriations last fall. And how did he get in?

REPRESENTATIVE JEFF FLAKE: Partly because few other people wanted on.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

FLAKE: It has kind of lost its luster for most people.

RAZ: In a recent issue of The New Republic, reporter Eliza Gray said: Right now is quite possibly the least fun time to be an appropriator on the record. And why? Well, for most of the past few decades, appropriators decided how the federal budget would be spent, and it gave them a lot of power. In fact, the subcommittee chairmen were known around Capitol Hill as the cardinals - as in, the cardinals who run the Catholic Church.

But over the summer, the president and congressional Republicans took that power away from Appropriations, and appointed a so-called supercommittee to do the work instead.

REPRESENTATIVE JIM MORAN: Well, a supercommittee is an indictment of the entire congressional process. It shows that the Congress is dysfunctional today.

RAZ: That's Virginia Democrat Jim Moran. He is a senior member on the Appropriations Committee.

MORAN: Today, what we have is a system that's been turned upside down.

RAZ: Moran remembers the days when being on the committee was a mark of serious power. Back in 1980, for example, after Mount Saint Helens erupted, Senator Warren Magnuson, the then-chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, was able to get a billion dollars in emergency aid for his home state of Washington. And another senator, Daniel Inouye of Hawaii, wondered why he couldn't get that kind of money.

MORAN: And Senator Inouye said, Maggie, I have thousands of volcanoes.

RAZ: Indeed.

MORAN: And why can't I get a billion dollars for each volcano? And Maggie put his hand on Dan Inouye's hand - who was young at the time - and said Danny, your time will come.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MORAN: Well, Danny's time has come. He takes very good care of Hawaii. And, you know, the system worked.

RAZ: Now, while appropriators earned a reputation for piling on the pork, Jim Moran says that's an oversimplification. He says today, major projects we take for granted could never get off the ground because the Republican leadership has banned so-called earmarks. And Moran points to a project he successfully funded - fixing the Woodrow Wilson Bridge. That's a major thoroughfare that connects Virginia to Maryland.

MORAN: And we pushed for three years to get that earmark in place. We did it. And now, the whole country benefits. We're proud of it. But there was no conceivable way you could have ever built the Woodrow Wilson Bridge to handle the East Coast traffic unless it had been an earmark.

RAZ: If a lot of the work of the Appropriations Committee is being done by this supercommittee, what are you guys doing on Appropriations right now - nowadays?

MORAN: Nothing.

RAZ: Nothing.

MORAN: No. Well, nothing of consequence.

RAZ: I understand the Appropriations Committee used to meet in this great room in the Capitol with a view of the National Mall, and that's been essentially shut down to make way for a women's bathroom.

MORAN: Yes.

RAZ: Is that more than just symbolic?

MORAN: Yes. My view with it.

RAZ: You're saying - it says...

MORAN: It's a diminution of the power of appropriators.

RAZ: And Jeff Flake agrees.

FLAKE: We should be doing some oversight hearings, but we're not.

RAZ: So have you had a chance to take up, you know, any new hobbies or maybe go back to old ones - stamp collecting or...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

FLAKE: Oh, I'm not saying there's not things to do.

RAZ: I got you.

FLAKE: But I think we could certainly make use of our time better if we were conducting more oversight and doing more hearings.

RAZ: Flake and his fellow appropriators are more or less biding their time until November 23rd. That's when the supercommittee has to present the rest of Congress with a spending plan, a plan that is expected to lay out billions of dollars in spending cuts.

FLAKE: That's pretty sad commentary on where we've come to, you know, as a Congress in not being able to prioritize. But if that's the only way we can cut spending, that may be what we have to do.

RAZ: Congressman Jeff Flake of Arizona and earlier, Democrat Jim Moran of Virginia; both are members of the House Appropriations Committee. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.