Rep. Jerry Lewis (R-CA) laughed as soon as he said it.
The House Appropriations Committee was slogging through a $97 billion emergency spending bill to wind down the war in Iraq and fund military, anti-terror and government building programs in Afghanistan and Pakistan Thursday morning. And in his opening remarks, Lewis, the top-ranking Republican on the Appropriations panel, addressed committee chairman Dave Obey (D-WI) as “President Obey.”
Lewis corrected himself. He drew another round of laughter when he added “Sometimes I wonder.”
Lewis’s remark strikes a chord because anyone who knows anything about Congress understands that the chairman of the House Appropriations Committee wields an extraordinary amount of power. In fact, Obey is often ranked as the fourth most-powerful member of Congress, just behind House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV), and House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-MD).
There’s a reason for Obey’s stature. Article 1, Section 9 of the Constitution indicates that “no money shall be drawn from the Treasury, but in consequence of appropriations made by law.”
And that’s why it’s often said that three parties operate in Washington: Democrats, Republicans and appropriators.
Appropriators are a special breed. In the House, it’s an elite squad of 60 members (37 Democrats and 23 Republicans) who oversee precisely how the federal government uses its money. It decides how much Washington spends on education programs. Health programs. Weapons systems. Right down to the nickel.
Appropriations bills are the Prego Spaghetti Sauce of legislation. As Prego used to say in its TV ads, “It’s in there.” And this is where you go if you want to learn exactly how the government spends your tax dollars.
Lewis may have jokingly referred to the full committee chairman as “president.” But the 12 subcommittee chairs who preside over various segments of federal spending are commonly known in Washington as “cardinals.” It’s a nod to the Catholic Church because of the imminence these lawmakers have over their particular piece of the federal pie.
This is exactly why the Appropriations Committee is arguably the most-strapping panel on Capitol Hill. And to understand this, all one needs to do is sift through the formal Appropriations Committee Report detailing what’s in Thursday’s emergency spending package.
There, you’ll find tables and breakdowns of how Obey carved up the $97 billion plan. There are specific line-items allotted for Blackhawk helicopters. Guided MLRS rockets. Night vision goggles. Predator Hellfire Missiles.
But there are other things here, too. There’s an appropriation to deal with the consequences of war, like orthopedic research and money for psychological health and traumatic brain injuries.
As you drill down deeper, you’ll unearth specific allocations for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives to train service personnel on how to render safe explosive devices. The Justice Department scores $5 million for U.S. Attorneys to handle investigations and prosecutions “of national importance.”
As chairman of the full committee, Dave Obey penned most of the legislation. Thursday’s meeting of the Appropriations Committee was what’s called a “markup session.” That’s where lawmakers write the final version of the bill. And appropriators being appropriators, know they can influence policy by either funding certain items or curbing money for others.
For instance, Rep. Barbara Lee (D-CA) is one of the most ardent foes of war funding on Capitol Hill. She’s pleased the U.S. is dialing back the conflict in Iraq. But Thursday, Lee proposed that the Obama Administration study ways to halt operations in Afghanistan.
Obey (D-WI) said repeatedly that he is “dubious” about the White House’s plans in Afghanistan and Pakistan. And Lee authored an amendment requiring the administration to create an Afghanistan exit strategy. She believes the approach in Afghanistan is “hopelessly flawed.” But in the end, Lee withdrew her amendment.
Certainly line-items explaining what the government pays for can be prove to be revealing. But often what’s absent from a bill is just as telling.
Without question, the most glaring black hole in this legislation is the absence of funding to close the detention center at Guantanamo Bay. When he initially introduced the bill Monday, Obey told reporters he provided no money to mothball Gitmo since the White House hadn’t yet drafted a “concrete plan” on what to do with the detainees there. Although he backed shuttering Guantanamo, the Wisconsin Democrat said that he would “rather not exert the energy” on something he called “theoretical.” At Thursday’s markup, the committee report on the bill said it would entertain a funding request “once a decision has been made” on what to do about the holding facility.
But that didn’t stop Republican lawmakers opposed to closing Gitmo from trying to influence policy about President Obama’s decision.
For instance, Rep. Frank Wolf (R-VA) proposed an amendment that would ban funding to transfer detainees from Guantanamo Bay.
After tangling with Wolf over his idea, Obey asked that the committee defer debate on Wolf’s Gitmo proposal. The chairman also suggested that the Virginia Republican was trying to call for what he called a “gotcha vote” on the detainee issue. Wolf indicated that he didn’t “want to wake up one morning and on WMAL News hear that one of these guys did something.”
After much debate, Obey tried to move the markup session along, asking if anyone else had “an amendment on a subject besides Guantanamo Bay?”
“I’d prefer not to have to chew the cud more than once,” Obey said.
But Obey relented as Rep. Todd Tiahrt (R-KS) proposed an amendment to keep any detainee released into the U.S. from receiving federal benefits such as food stamps or welfare.
“Do you want the terrorists in your hometown?” asked Tiahrt. He pointed out that the government frequently tells people to wear their seatbelts and wash their hands to stay clear of swine flu. However, the Kansas Republican said a vote against his amendment was a vote for making the country less safe. And a vote for his plan would bolster safety.
Rep. Chet Edwards (D-TX) countered Tiahrt with an assertion that he proffered a “false argument.” In fact, Edwards said that closing Gitmo could increase the safety of Americans.
“Every day that (Guantanamo Bay) remains open, it remains a recruiting tool for terrorists,” Edwards said.
The committee finally rejected amendments by Tiahrt and Wolf on party line votes.
But Obey did call for the White House to submit a report to Congress this fall explaining how it intends to go about closing the detention facility.
That shows how potent the Appropriations panel can be. Obey’s effort might not survive the House floor, gymnastics in the Senate or a final conference committee forging the ultimate version of the bill. But implicit in Obey’s maneuver is the muscle of every appropriator: the power of the purse. James Madison called the power of the purse “the most complete and effectual weapon” to obtain “a redress of every grievance.”
Which is why there are three sects of lawmakers in Washington: Democrats, Republicans and appropriators.
- Chad Pergram covers Congress for FOX News. He’s won an Edward R. Murrow Award and the Joan Barone Award for his reporting on Capitol Hill.