Big changes in store for spending panels

A sea change on spending panels is leaving the House and Senate without some of the most forceful defenders of the congressional “power of the purse.”

Several members of the Senate Appropriations Committee already either planned to retire or had lost their election bids in party primaries this year even before Sen. Robert Byrd’s (D-W.Va.) death early Monday morning.

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Committee members and Sens. Bob Bennett (R-Utah), Kit Bond (R-Mo.), Sam Brownback (R-Kan.), Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.), Judd Gregg (R-N.H.), Arlen Specter (D-Pa.) and George Voinovich (R-Ohio) will all need to be replaced.

The House has seen the retirement of Rep. David Obey (D-Wis.), the chairman of that chamber’s Appropriations panel. Another old bull, Rep. John Murtha (D-Pa.), the chairman of the House spending panel for the Pentagon, also died earlier this year.

The changes come as earmarks, spending projects sponsored by individual lawmakers in appropriations bills, have come under increasing attack by the administration. President Barack Obama’s White House has also proposed a new “rescission” process that would allow Congress to give up-or-down votes on spending cuts identified by the president.

Meanwhile, the administration and Congress are under increasing pressure to cut spending across the board given the country’s record budget deficits and public debt. At the international G-20 meeting in Toronto, Obama signed on to an agreement that countries should seek to halve their deficits by 2013.

Byrd’s passing leaves Congress without the biggest protector of its spending powers.

“He was clearly the strongest voice on the Hill for defending the legislative branch and its prerogatives. It leaves a huge void in terms of holding off the executive branch,” said Jim Walsh, a government affairs counselor for K&L Gates. “And what is the executive branch aggressive about? Spending. Both Presidents Bush, President Clinton and now President Obama, they all covet that power.”

The changes in the Senate leave K Street uncertain over what direction the debate on spending will go.

“It’s tremendous uncertainty,” Walsh said. “These are giants that are departing, and they are departing at a time where there is a tremendous pressure on the legislative branch to give up these powers.”

Byrd’s death is also a double blow to West Virginia. Rep. Alan Mollohan (D-W.Va.), chairman of the House Appropriations Commerce, Justice and Science subcommittee, was defeated in a Democratic primary and will be unseated at the end of the year.

Walsh, a former Republican New York House member who served on that chamber’s Appropriations Committee for 14 years, said the loss of Byrd as well as Mollohan leaves “a huge void” for West Virginia and will mean “a historic change” for the state.

“On Appropriations, you need someone in each body to get something done,” Walsh said. “Whatever Byrd did in the Senate, it was protected in the House by Mollohan. A powerful duo.”

Byrd was perhaps the best-known earmarker on Capitol Hill, having countless roads and government buildings named after him in his home state of West Virginia. Despite declining health, the longest-serving member of Congress was still securing hundreds of millions in federal funding for his home state.

According to an analysis by Taxpayers for Common Sense (TCS), a budget watchdog group, Byrd sponsored more than $292 million in earmarked projects either by himself or with other lawmakers. Only three senators won more earmarks in fiscal 2010.

Mollohan ranked 37th among House members for securing earmarks; he and other lawmakers won more than $55 million in earmarked projects last year.

Byrd’s and Mollohan’s success left West Virginia as one the biggest beneficiaries of earmarked funds. The state ranked third for receiving the most fiscal 2010 earmarked funds, about $173.74 per capita, according to the TCS analysis.

“It is going to be very detrimental to the state of West Virginia because there are going to be many fantastic projects there that are going to be affected by this,” said Michael Fulton, executive vice president for GolinHarris.

He warned of an “adverse impact” on West Virginia.