January 14, 2011 | Commentary on Budget and Spending, Government Waste

The Power of the Purse

The new GOP-controlled House has pledged to rein in federal spending over both the short and the long term. To have any shot at success, though, Republican leadership must first overhaul that bastion of government largesse: the House Appropriations Committee.

This will require more than simply changing the players involved. The overhaul must penetrate deep into the committee’s longstanding culture, in which appropriators, their professional staff, and legions of lobbyists serve as a mutually reinforcing triad bent on increasing spending today, tomorrow, and forevermore.

Taxpayers should be encouraged by the package of House rules changes championed by Speaker John Boehner (R., Ohio) and recently adopted by the full House.

Say goodbye to:

● the so-called “Gephardt Rule,” which allowed the House to raise the debt ceiling without voting on the issue directly;

● the “pay-as-you-go” budget rule, which tilted the playing field in favor of tax increases to meet deficit goals — it’s now replaced with an approach that favors spending cuts;

● budgetary tricks that hide the actual long-term fiscal impact of expansions to entitlement programs — now replaced with a more honest, transparent, and forward-looking approach; and

● the special treatment for transportation projects that lets lawmakers pay for them by using general tax revenues in addition to the proceeds from the federal gas tax. This practice replaced the “user fee” model built to finance the interstate-highway system with one that allowed Congress to underwrite numerous non-highway projects — such as local mass-transit systems, bike trails, roadside flower gardens, and hiking paths — with no clear nexus to national interests. Now, federal funding for transportation projects will have to come solely from its traditional source — the gas tax.

As cultural “change agents” go, these reforms constitute a good start. But they are inherently limited. After all, such reforms presume that lawmakers, especially appropriators, are congenital spendthrifts whose extravagance with taxpayer dollars can be restrained only by procedural straitjackets. And there is good reason to feel this way. Virtually everyone who follows congressional procedure, after all, sees the House Appropriations Committee as the perpetual source of all spending evils. They believe it’s always been this way.

But nothing could be farther from the truth. In The Power of the Purse, the classic 1966 study of the appropriations process, political scientist Richard F. Fenno Jr. describes a set of mores within the post–World War II House and Senate committees that would shock today’s Washington cognoscenti. Appropriators of that era, it seems, saw their primary role as fiduciaries for beleaguered taxpayers — as protectors of the purse, as it were.

During those days, committee members viewed executive-branch bureaucrats warily, sensing that bureaucrats’ primary interest was in expanding their fiefdoms. Bureaucrats, committee members knew, padded their annual budget requests well beyond what was actually required to run their programs. The primary role of appropriators, committee members believed, was to serve as a counterweight to this tendency, paring back whatever budget requests the bureaucrats submitted. Their investigative and legislative energies were directed toward saving taxpayers a few hundred thousand dollars here, a few hundred thousand there.

As one subcommittee chairman told Fenno:

When you have sat on the Committee, you see that these bureaus are always asking for more money — always up, never down. They want to build up their organization. You reach the point — I have — where it sickens you, where you rebel against it. Year after year, they want more money. They say “Only $50,000 this year”; but you know the pattern. Next year they’ll be back for $100,000, then $200,000. The younger members haven’t been on the Committee long enough, haven’t had the experience to know this. 

“The Committee’s . . . economy-minded Republicans and its conservative Southern Democrats,” Fenno explained, “are predisposed to accept . . . such goals as Treasury guardianship and its supporting perceptions.” But many Democratic appropriators, he noted, were traditional urban liberals who wanted to fund social-welfare programs lavishly. Interestingly, these liberals knew of the appropriations committee’s skinflint reputation and viewed it as a dead-end assignment. Often, Democratic leaders had to strong-arm them to join the committee. Part of that process, Fenno wrote, required that they “learn to temper their potentially disruptive welfare state ideology with a conservative concern for saving money” and “change their perceptions and attitudes sufficiently so that they view the Committee’s goals in nearly the same terms as their Southern Democratic and Republican colleagues.”

And the acculturation process worked. One liberal appropriator told Fenno, “I suppose I came here a flaming liberal; but as the years go by I get more conservative. You just hate like hell to spend all this money. . . . You come to the point where you say, ‘By God, this is enough.’”

Transparency of the committee’s proceedings was also an issue half a century ago, as it is today. And, again, as we have seen in recent years, committee elders conjured up justifications for keeping committee documents and legislative language bottled up until the last possible moment. But the rationale then was nothing like what we hear today.

Fenno wrote:

“I’m new around here,” [a newcomer to the committee] said, “but I wondered if we could get subcommittee reports about 48 hours in advance so we could study them.” A veteran subcommittee chairman, assuming the role of teacher, stepped in and replied, “You must be new here. If we put those reports out early, they would get out and subject you to pressure [for increased spending] from lobbyists.” Even the hiring of professional committee staff was designed to “[shore] up the [committee’s] budget-cutting activity.” The chairman, for example, required that his staff be expert in “tearing down a budget” rather than building one up. Those with prior executive branch experience were instructed not to go soft on their former colleagues, which in political science-speak translates to a ban on “clientele-oriented program support activity.”

All this arcane history should encourage the new majority on the House Appropriations Committee. Fenno’s work half a century ago tells us that even the most seemingly intractable reality in today’s Washington — that Hill appropriators are genetically predisposed to spend, spend, and spend some more — can change. Imagine a world where even the most ideologically liberal appropriators join the committee and buy into a peer culture that places the highest value on spending restraint and fosters competition to slash budget requests rather than acquiesce to them; where lobbyists and bureaucrats are viewed skeptically and kept at arm’s length; and where the professional committee staff work cheerfully on behalf of taxpayers instead of against them.

The new class of Republican appropriators, including Reps. Jeff Flake (R., Ariz.), Tom Graves (R., Ga.), Cynthia Lummis (R., Wyo.), and three gung-ho freshmen, should study this history closely and learn from it. After all, the planets may finally be aligned to once again favor the interests of taxpayers. — Michael G. Franc is vice president of government relations at the Heritage Foundation.

About the Author

Michael Franc Distinguished Fellow
Government Studies

First appeared in National Review Online