When House Appropriations Committee ranking member Norm Dicks, D-Wash., announced earlier this year that he will retire in November, Rep. Marcy Kaptur of Ohio became the heir apparent to the top Democratic post on the committee. Kaptur, who came to Congress in 1983, has served on Appropriations since 1990 and would be the first woman to assume the ranking-member or chair position on the powerful committee. In an interview with National Journal, Kaptur ruminated on what the 113th Congress will bring. Edited excerpts follow.
NJ You wrote a book on women in Congress. What does it say about the state of affairs that in 2012, you’re going to be the first woman at the top of the Appropriations Committee?
KAPTUR It is a historic moment for women and certainly for someone from the Midwest. You know, when I first came here, the only woman’s portrait in the Capitol was of Pocahontas, in the Rotunda.
NJ What’s the most striking change in Congress in the 30 years since you first came to Washington?
KAPTUR The role of money—the amounts of money that people have to raise has increased so significantly. And members also used to travel to one another’s districts. I don’t really understand why members of Congress stopped doing that, but that is a very unhealthy thing, because people don’t understand where the other ones come from.
NJ I’m told that initially you weren’t keen on being on the Appropriations Committee.
KAPTUR It’s a geographically based committee, and I came from an area that was not in the geographic queue, No. 1. No. 2, when you’re first elected, you don’t get on Appropriations; in any of these exclusive committees,- you have to run more than once to get it. I ran three times, and by then they saw I really wanted it.
NJ Why did you want it so badly?
KAPTUR Because it has range across the entire government. I knew I didn’t want to just be pigeonholed because of my work with the Carter administration on housing. It also kept me in touch with the full [House Democratic] Caucus, because some of our programs are interregional.
NJ When I spoke with you earlier, you mentioned that you would be the first Ohioan to be at the top of the Appropriations Committee since former President James Garfield in 1875, and that you were excited to bring more money to Ohio. Does the earmark ban complicate that effort?
KAPTUR Well, keep this in mind: Even when earmarks were around, less than 1 percent of the entire appropriations budget dealt with that. We fund programs. For example, we have a challenge right now, stopping the Asian carp in the Great Lakes. There are accounts that could specifically address that, whether it’s the Army Corps of Engineers or Great Lakes Restoration Fund, and we fund accounts. I think not to have a voice from our region would be a serious loss.
NJ What are your goals for the next Congress?
KAPTUR Our first goal is to elect a Democratic House so we can actually get something done, and not just have the devolutionists in charge, wanting to destroy everything. I have an ability to work collegially across a wide range of interests in the caucus and in the Congress, and an ability to work on a bipartisan basis. Appropriators pride themselves on that.
NJ Still, some sort of divided government is likely next year. What’s the most important issue for the next Congress, regardless of who’s in charge?
KAPTUR We have to keep the economy going and try to get our accounts in order. And we have to get the committees to function under regular order. It’s been very unfortunate for the country, these fits and starts on these bills. If you’re an employer, you simply don’t know what’s going to happen, so it’s affecting employment. For me, appropriations bills are the glue. These are the bills that must move, no matter what, to keep the government functioning as a reliable element of our society. The Appropriations Committee shouldn’t be the most political place to be; it’s the place where we have to make the institution function for the country.
NJ What is your relationship with Chairman Harold Rogers?
KAPTUR Very good, very good. He works well. Any chairman has a difficult job. He’s very approachable. He’s a matter-of-fact sort of gentleman—I mean he doesn’t spend a lot of time on wasted words, he’s terse—but I think very effective. He believes in regular order. There’s a good working spirit in the committee, and that’s what we need to increase inside the Congress. Because people are treating one another like objects, and that is not healthy for the country, and the country knows it; they want change. We have to humanize this institution.
This article appears in the April 21, 2012, edition of National Journal Magazine.