Senior House leadership aides describe the intensifying battle for chairmanship of the Appropriations Committee as a “jump ball” and the 76-year-old ranking Republican, Jerry Lewis of California, Tuesday jumped into the spending-cut debate with both sneakers.
Lewis delivered a slick, five-section battle plan, complete with a companion zip drive featuring a slide show and three-minute video to the 34-member Republican Study Committee which will elect the new committee chairman, likely sometime next week, no later than December 8.
Lewis promised to lead the committee toward at least $100 billion in non-defense/non-veterans spending cuts this year—in addition to repeated vows to enforce an earmark ban, revive anti-abortion policies, block funding to “enforce or implement” the health care law, and, surprisingly, reduce the Appropriations Committee staff.
“I’m the most tested and battle-ready person to lead the full committee,” Lewis said in his cover letter to his presentation, a copy of which was obtained by National Journal.
Lewis must win a waiver from the Steering Committee to become chairman. By House GOP rules, any member who has served for six years as a committee chairman or ranking member must step down or receive a special waiver. House GOP leaders are reluctant to grant waivers to any Republican in the new Congress, in part because it suggests the bending of rules first created by reformist Republicans in 1995.
Lewis is competing against Kentucky’s Hal Rogers and Georgia’s Jack Kingston. By seniority, Rogers is next in line for the chairmanship. Kingston is making a long-shot bid as younger, more aggressive conservative voice.
Rogers gave a speech to the Steering Committee, while Kingston provided a power-point presentation outlining his goals, many of which mirrored Lewis’s but also emphasized procedural reforms such as reviving Gramm-Rudman discretionary spending caps. Kingston is fifth in GOP committee seniority and is viewed by some in leadership as lacking the staff expertise to handle the rigors of chairmanship.
Though the Steering Committee has 34 members, Speaker-designate John Boehner, R-Ohio, wields four votes and incoming Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., wields two—giving them a larger voice. The new freshman class, elected in 2010, will have three votes, compared to the class from the current Congress, which will have only one vote—a shift in power to the freshmen that Boehner engineered. California also has one vote on the committee. Lewis is the only candidate with his home state carrying a vote.
Lewis’s presentation also seeks to shatter a commonly held belief that he’s been part of the spending problem in Washington. He was an unapologetic defender of earmarks for years (in 2007 he secured $137 million in dedicated projects for his district, the fifth-highest total in the House; he landed another $80 million in earmarks in 2009). Lewis also chafed at attempts by GOP Rep. Jeff Flake of Arizona to limit or ban earmarks. Lewis switched positions and backed Boehner’s call in 2009 for a GOP earmark ban in the 111th Congress. Lewis has pledged to extend that ban into the 112th and add Flake-like conservatives to the Appropriations Committee.
“The American people are justifiably angry at Washington,” Lewis said in his cover letter. “Coming on the heels of the most liberal, pro-spending, pro-regulation, pro-choice, anti-small business Congress in memory, the American people are giving House Republicans a rare opportunity to get it right this time. We must not fail.”
Lewis also vowed to repeal at least $12 billion in “unobligated” funds from the stimulus law, set multi-year caps on discretionary spending, end catch-all spending bills, terminate funding for White House czars, write and pass spending bills under open rules with unlimited committee and floor amendments.
Other factors, of course, enter into these chairmanship battles.
In addition to the GOP leadership’s desire to maintain the six-year term limit on chairmen and ranking member status, the issue of Texas Rep. Joe Barton’s desire to lead the Energy and Commerce Committee looms over the Appropriations decision. The GOP leadership does not want to grant Barton a waiver to ascend the chairmanship and if it grants a waiver to Lewis, it complicates the Barton process and could invite divisive accusations of Steering Committee favoritism—a potentially distracting debate GOP leaders would like to avoid.
And money—meaning campaign contributions—will also factor into the decision. Lewis in 2004 bested Rogers, his junior in seniority, to become Appropriations chairman by donating more to the National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC) than Rogers.
In this most recent cycle, Rogers gave the NRCC $488,750 from his personal campaign account and $6,000 from his leadership PAC, Help American Leaders. Rogers also donated to 40 House GOP candidates through his leadership PAC. Lewis gave more than $1 million from his campaign account to the NRCC and $30,000 to the NRCC and $65,000 to 11 House GOP candidates from his leadership PAC, Future Leaders.
Regardless of who becomes chairman, a deeper goal of House GOP leaders is to fill the Appropriations Committee with members dedicated to cutting spending—as opposed to acting as proxies to secure earmarks for their leadership patrons. Historically, seats on the Appropriations Committee were highly coveted and awarded to members who backed leaders in both parties.
That appears to be changing.
Interviews with leadership aides suggest that, in many instances, incoming GOP lawmakers view service on Appropriations as a potential liability, a post where they may be blamed for spending cuts that pass the House but die in the Senate. Newly elected members, especially those with tea party backing, are somewhat reluctant to seek an Appropriations seat and possibly finding themselves having to defend a performance gap between the spending cuts they promised as candidates and what they were ultimately able to achieve in the next Congress.