February 8, 2005

February 8, 2005 | Commentary on Political Thought

Legislative Lowdown -- Week of February 7th

They say there are really three political parties on Capitol Hill: Democrats, Republicans and appropriators.

Members who gain admittance to the exclusive confines of the House and Senate appropriations committees, even those with track records as fiscal conservatives, often evolve into apologists for increased spending on failed programs or for wasteful pork projects. In recent years, appropriators have emerged as a solid bloc of opposition votes to conservative efforts to fix the budget process and require that so-called "emergency" spending be offset with cuts to programs elsewhere in the budget.

Little wonder, then, that House leaders screened the three candidates for House Appropriations chairman so carefully last year. Significantly, the eventual winner, California Republican Jerry Lewis, mounted a surprisingly unabashed campaign to convince his colleagues that he would use his chairmanship to limit federal spending. To underscore the point, Lewis even handed colleagues a reprint of a "Jerry Lewis for Congress" campaign poster from his inaugural run for Congress in 1978.

Lewis, who chaired the Appropriations Subcommittee on VA-HUD and Independent Agencies during the first four years of the post-1994 Republican Congress, reminded members that he cut almost $20 billion from politically sensitive housing programs in 1995 and 1996, and that he even subjected outmoded defense programs to the budget knife while serving as chairman of the Defense Subcommittee.

Now Lewis appears poised to usher in the most radical reconfiguration of the Appropriations Committee in many decades. He may propose to eliminate three of the 13 spending subcommittees and realign the jurisdiction of the remaining subcommittees to comport with the Republicans' stated desire to rein in spending. One part of his plan would place NASA in the same bill as energy and water programs, rather than have it compete with veterans programs. Another would move the EPA budget to the same bill that funds national parks and forest programs. Proponents quietly hope that these changes will improve the likelihood that some of the most explosive areas of spending growth will be restrained.

These changes are no silver bullet, of course. But it sounds as if the new House Appropriations Committee chairman is serious about putting Uncle Sam on a diet.

Social Security Strategizing

Congressional Republicans who attended the annual retreat at the Greenbrier resort in West Virginia spent more time discussing the forthcoming battle over Social Security reform than any other issue. President Bush, who spoke privately to the members after brief public remarks, made an impassioned case that Congress has a moral imperative to reform the troubled program now and not saddle future generations with the unsustainable cost of caring for the baby boomers. His remarks, which were echoed by House and Senate leaders, put to rest lingering doubts among certain queasy Republicans that he would leave the heavy lifting to Congress and not put the full weight of his presidency behind the reform effort.

Members were particularly encouraged to learn that the President would deliver five carefully targeted public speeches to build public support for his reform agenda. The locales--Great Falls, Mont., Fargo, N.D., Omaha, Neb., Little Rock, Ark., and Tampa, Fla.--happen to be in the states of six Democratic senators who frequently appear on lists of Democrats who might, under certain circumstances, entertain Social Security reform that includes personal accounts. Three of these targets--Nebraska's Ben Nelson, Florida's Bill Nelson and North Dakota's Kent Conrad--face re-election in 2006. This aggressive strategy is reminiscent of how Bush campaigned for Republican candidates during the 2002 mid-term elections and likely will build an enormous reservoir of good will among members that Bush may need to call upon should the going get tough down the road.

The two principal architects of the GOP's Social Security message, Rep. Deborah Pryce, the chairman of the House Republican Conference, and her Senate counterpart, Pennsylvania's Rick Santorum, distributed a 103-page document to their colleagues setting forth a comprehensive list of the arguments on behalf of reform. 
 
Mr. Franc, who has held a number of positions on Capitol Hill, is vice president of Government Relations at The Heritage Foundation.

About the Author

Michael Franc Distinguished Fellow
Government Studies

Related Issues: Political Thought

First appeared in Human Events