A Glimpse Inside the Strange World Known As the House of Representatives

Centrist gavels for House Appropriations subcommittees.There are, of course, dramatic interpretations waiting for the pundits to pounce, but four House Appropriations chair assignments last week include the sort of trivia that actually tell us a bit about how our government works. David Hawkings of Roll Call detailed some of the significant aspects of the four assignments brought on by two resignations and the passing of Rep. C.W. Bill Young (FL-13):

The altered assignments mean a changed membership for one-third of the group known all over Capitol Hill as the college of cardinals. The allusion to the power players of the Catholic Church is not only because of the significant unilateral power these chairmen have to reward or restrict federal agencies through subtle tugs on the federal purse strings. It also refers to their somewhat secretive code of conduct for rewarding colleagues in both parties who embrace the panel’s spending culture — and punishing those who don’t.

This latter code has frayed somewhat since earmarking became verboten and the GOP majority unified behind the goal of cutting the discretionary part of the budget that appropriators control. But it still remains solidly in force at the margins. And so — if a comprehensive omnibus spending package is going to be written to dictate spending for the 35 weeks after Jan. 15, when the current continuing resolution expires — the four new and repositioned chairmen, along with their eight colleagues, will each be called on to quickly bless hundreds of small trade-offs and compromises.

“Being an Appropriations cardinal is an incredibly important job with great responsibility,” said Chairman Hal Rogers of Kentucky, because lawmakers must be “responsible and pragmatic leaders who get the job done.” That’s a rare characteristic in the total-budget-breakdown era of the moment.

Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen (NJ-11) will take over the Defense subcomittee, which Hawkings notes is the House panel “assigned to allocate slightly more than half of all discretionary money”. And while there is certainly some morsel of implication about Frelinghuysen, described as a centrist who, like his other incoming cardinal colleagues, voted with Democrats to avert last year’s fiscal cliff and this year’s default threat, there is a subtext worth watching as the budgetary wheeling and dealing gets underway. Timothy Noah of MSNBC noted, earlier this month:

No one dreamed congressional Republicans would tolerate the 2013 sequester, because it slashed defense spending along with non-defense discretionary spending (while exempting automatic-spending programs like Medicare and Social Security). Republicans hate to slash defense spending! But the House GOP surprised everybody by tolerating the sequester just fine; this new breed of Tea Party reactionaries, it turned out, didn’t care nearly as much about defense spending as its predecessors had.

Even so, the next round of sequestration cuts will put that blasé pose to a very severe test. Under the 2014 sequester, defense spending will drop about $20 billion (off a base of about $518 billion), or roughly 4%. Non-defense discretionary spending, meanwhile will remain flat, at about $469 billion. Indeed, technically it will go up slightly (from $468 billion). If they do nothing, then, House Republicans will prompt the writing of headlines that say, “GOP Chooses Military Dismantlement Over Tax Increase.” A hard-bargaining president could tell John Boehner, You want to be a cartoon Republican and block all tax increases? Fine. Then I’ll be a cartoon Democrat and allow a big fat cut in Pentagon spending. I’d rather not do that. But it’s your choice, pal.

Perhaps you’re wondering how it came to pass that the sequester’s automatic cuts for 2014, which were supposed to be divided evenly between defense and domestic discretionary spending, ended up encompassing nothing but defense spending. The short answer is that, through a complicated set of circumstances involving, among other factors, the fiscal cliff deal, the continuing resolution that resolved the government shutdown, and the 2011 Budget Control Act, the cuts to domestic spending ended up getting front-loaded in 2013, whereas the Pentagon cuts were not.

And, certes, we can imagine that Speaker Boehner would prefer faithful allies, but also centrist Appropriations cardinals who are capable of engaging the kind of proverbial sausage making that tends to keep the nation running. This will be a difficult year for Defense, with the bulk of sequester cuts coming down on the House and Senate subcommittes that handle more than half of all discretionary spending.

And Frelinghuysen comes from a long political heritage not wasted on its current generation; Hawkings explains:

Now in his 10th term representing some of the richest exurban towns in New Jersey, where his family has been a political power since the Revolution (yes, that first one), Frelinghuysen is known as a shrewd, if low-key, deal-maker. As one of the House GOP’s more prominent social moderates, he remains an ardent advocate for defense spending but predicts Pentagon budgets are beyond their post-Sept. 11 high-water marks.

The New Jersey Republican will move up from the Energy and Water Development chair; his place will go to Rep. Mike Simpson (ID-2). One can seek political subtleties; Hawkings notes Simpson’s right-wing challenger, backed by the Club for Growth.

Next up, then, is Rep. Ken Calvert (CA-42), who leaves behind the Legislative Branch panel in order to fill Simpson’s spot at Interior-Environment. Apparently, however, his Legislative Branch chair is “customarily the least-sought-after subcommittee chairmanship” goes to former NRCC chair Rep. Tom Cole (OK-4).

For his part, Cole has taken not only a moderate tack in recent days as his Republican colleagues hammer the president over the healthcare website debacle, but also a wise one. Chris Cillizza noted this week:

“Republicans need to understand that their political problems are neither tactical nor transitory,” said Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.). “They are structural and demographic. The hard truth is the GOP coalition constitutes a shrinking portion of the electorate. To change that daunting reality, Republicans must appeal to groups that are currently outside their ranks or risk becoming a permanent minority.”

One might wonder how many times we can hear this sort of talk from Republicans without laughing at the futility, but clearly Boehner knows the score. Unless he expects Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) to run the House of Representatives in the next budget fight, he had better be prepared, and these appointments are certainly part of that.

Neither, though, can we overlook the notion of simple competence. President Obama’s poll numbers might be bad right now, but the GOP’s will be worse if they dig themselves into a hole, again, and find themselves unable to climb back out.

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