When I first came to Washington in 1969, one of the first members of Congress I met and talked to was George Mahon, a courtly, laconic conservative Southern Democrat who happened to be chairman of the House Appropriations Committee. We talked about the committee and its traditions, and he said to me, "If you want to know anything and everything about appropriations, read the Fenno book."
Mahon was referring to the magisterial The Power of the Purse: Appropriations Politics in Congress, a political-science classic by Richard Fenno, the role model for all congressional scholars. The book tells the story of a powerful committee that did not fit the contemporary stereotype of a panel larded with members eager to open the floodgates of taxpayer dollars, to fund any and every boondoggle for the benefit of their own districts and those of their colleagues. Instead, Appropriations, from the chairmanships of Republican John Taber and Democrat Clarence Cannon through Mahon and on for decades thereafter, was carefully filled by party leaders with lawmakers of both parties who saw their role as guardians of the public purse, looking with a jaundiced eye on excessive spending and working together to provide tough oversight of government programs. The committee had well-established norms that rewarded diligence, fairness, and bipartisanship.
I thought of Mahon, and Fenno, last week as I watched David Price of North Carolina give an eloquent, anguished speech on the floor of the House as it debated the Homeland Security appropriations bill. Price had a distinguished career himself as a congressional scholar before he came to Congress, and he continues to write insightfully about Congress from the inside (ask him for the paper he wrote for a recent conference at Yale). More important, he is an institutionalist to his core, a longtime member of Appropriations who venerates a deliberative process, bipartisan cooperation and action, and regular order.
Why was Price so distraught? The Homeland Security Subcommittee, on which he is the ranking Democrat, had brought a balanced, sensible bill to the floor, crafted with the participation and cooperation of members on both sides, to protect our homeland within severe budget constraints. The work inside the subcommittee had been a model of how the process should work—but for a second year in a row, its work was threatened by a poison-pill amendment offered by that poster boy for radical nihilism, Steve King of Iowa. The amendment blew up the Dream Act, taking away all discretion from the Department of Homeland Security to focus its deportation resources on criminals and miscreants and forcing the department to end any deferral in the deportation process that enables "dreamers" to stay in the United States.
By his own admission, King was trying to blow up any chance for a comprehensive immigration bill to pass the House. But the amendment was also a key test of whether the current Republican leaders of the House, and especially the members and leaders of the Appropriations Committee, valued this model of bipartisan deliberation and decision enough to keep its model bill intact.
They failed the test. Miserably. Not a single Republican on the Homeland Security Subcommittee voted against the poison-pill amendment. Only one Republican member of the full committee, freshman David Valadao of California, opposed it. No Republican member of the party leadership team opposed it. Committee Chairman Hal Rogers showed the opposite of leadership and proved he does not belong in the same category as Taber, Cannon, Mahon, Bill Natcher, Dave Obey, Bob Livingston, Bill Young, and others who cared about process and regular order, and the fierce independence and responsibility of the historic panel.
Rogers is actually a good guy, as are many of the committee members—like Oklahoma's Tom Cole—who failed the test. The only logical explanation is a frightening one: They are all intimidated by the more extreme and radical forces in their party. That the driving forces in today's GOP—the ones who can say "Jump" and have the party leaders respond "How high?"—are the likes of Steve King and Ted Cruz is deeply unsettling.
There is more. The new radical GOP has so embraced a slash-government-at-any-cost mentality that it is enthusiastic about the mindless across-the-board cuts known as the sequester, and is determined to slash all domestic discretionary programs even more deeply to meet the 10-year timetable in the balanced-budget framework of Paul Ryan. That includes programs that shape our homeland and national security, public safety, food safety, basic medical and scientific research, and much more.
As we focus on how a junior private contractor for Booz Allen Hamilton could gain access to and then leak the most sensitive intelligence information we have, keep this destructive mindset at the fore. Why have we privatized and subcontracted the lions' share of our national security intelligence apparatus? Because mindless budget cuts, a long-standing zeal to privatize reflexively, along with multiyear pay freezes for all civilian government employees and other efforts to undercut and demoralize those who work for government, have made it nearly impossible for government security agencies to compete with the private sector for top-flight electrical engineers and computer scientists. So we have turned to the back door, relying more and more on less-secure private contractors. This is the consequence of moving from a commendable focus on lean, efficient, and functional government in areas where we need it to an unthinking hatred of all government that is transcendent in the new GOP, and unchallenged by those who know better.
This article appears in the June 13, 2013 edition of NJ Daily.
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