In the good old days, they were called “the cardinals,” because the chairmen of the appropriations committee were so powerful. An insular group, they met behind closed doors, and, without wasting their time with input from anyone, they decided how the government should spend precious tax dollars. The most legendary example of the appropriator’s might is Charlie Wilson, the Texas representative who launched a covert war against the Soviets in Afghanistan in the 1980s, simply through canny use of the power of the purse.
How times have changed. Appropriators have been under assault for a while now—the villains of tales about pork-barrel politics and orgies of earmarking. But the 112th Congress may officially be the least fun time to be an appropriator on record. For months, the House and Senate appropriations committees were grinding away on spending bills without knowing how much money the government actually had to spend in 2012, thanks to the lack of a budget deal. Then, in late July, House Speaker John Boehner reached an agreement with President Barack Obama that created a twelve-member “super committee”—a bipartisan group of six senators and six representatives—charged with devising a plan to fix the budget mess by Thanksgiving. This means that the once-omnipotent appropriators have to take a backseat to the super committee, leaving them with a bad case of status anxiety. As a morose Representative Jim Moran, a senior Democratic appropriator, told me, “The appropriations process doesn’t give us shit anymore.”
LAST JANUARY, House appropriators lost their office—a coveted location off the floor, with a balcony overlooking the National Mall. The move, compelled by the addition of a new women’s bathroom, turned out to be the first in a series of minor and major humiliations to come.
The appropriations committee is responsible for allocating funds for the discretionary part of the federal budget—roughly one-third of overall spending. This has traditionally given the committee a great deal of power over how exactly government dollars are spent. Last winter, however, Congress enacted a two-year moratorium on earmarks—or, as appropriators prefer to call them, “legislatively directed projects”—thus removing the discretionary mechanism by which appropriators funnel money to their home districts or dole out favors to colleagues.
With one of the committee’s key sources of power gone, it suddenly got a lot less popular. Once, it was highly unusual for a freshman lawmaker to land a seat on appropriations. This year, three freshmen did. So did GOP Representative Jeff Flake, an Arizona budget hawk who had tried and failed to get onto the panel before. “There used to be people lined up around the block,” he told me. “In a normal year, I’d have no chance.”
I spoke to a number of House appropriators in late September as they were scrambling to pass a continuing resolution to avoid a government shutdown, after Congress again failed to pass spending bills on time. Meanwhile, all the important work was beginning in a closed-door meeting in the nearby Jefferson building, where tight-lipped members of the super committee had convened to start negotiating a plan for the entire federal budget. The committee’s recommendations will be considered with an up-or-down vote, removing any chance for backroom tinkering. And, if the super committee fails to reach an agreement or its recommendations are rejected, automatic cuts will ensue. Representative Nita Lowey of New York, another senior Democratic appropriator, allowed that it would be a “major achievement” if the super committee reaches a deal, but noted that its existence “clearly undercuts the work of the appropriations committee.”
Appropriators were quick to question whether the members of the super committee had the expertise or experience equal to the task. “I think we would go after it with the right tools and a scalpel. The super committee is going to come down on programs like a sledgehammer, because there is no way they can possibly understand the consequences of their decision-making,” says Moran, who has served on the appropriations committee on and off since 1993. Bob Livingston, the Republican chairman of the appropriations committee from 1995 to 1998, griped, “We lose the ability to really understand the nuances of government when we resort to large macro committees.” Perhaps the only appropriator I talked to who saw a bright side in any of this was Flake. “For me, this is good,” he said. “I didn’t want to come in to hand out goodies.”
Eliza Gray is an assistant editor at The New Republic. This article appeared in the October 20, 2011, issue of the magazine.