Real appropriations battle begins with Rep. Hal Rogers as chairman

Rep. Hal Rogers (R-Ky.) on Tuesday defeated Reps. Jack Kingston (R-Ga.) and Jerry Lewis (R-Calif.) in the race to be the next House Appropriations Committee chairman.

Lewis, who served for three terms as the top-ranking Republican on Appropriations, had been seeking a waiver of GOP term-limit rules to continue as the leading Republican on the panel.

Under internal House GOP rules, a member may serve for only six years as the top-ranking lawmaker on a committee.

As an “old bull” of the committee with a long track record of supporting pork-barrel spending, Rogers will be monitored closely by fiscal conservatives intent on making the Appropriations Committee the engine for paring down the size of government.

Rogers in a statement that he looked forward to “working with leadership and my Republican colleagues in fighting for serious reforms of the committee, bringing fiscal sanity back to our budgeting process [and] performing vigorous oversight of the failed job-creation policies of the Obama administration.”

The decision was difficult for GOP leaders because it was framed as a test of their commitment to cutting spending and staying true to the wishes of the conservative base and the Tea Party.

Kingston had won applause for being less of an earmark sponsor than his rivals, and his pledges for reform struck advocates as more credible. Taxpayers for Common Sense says Kingston sought $66 million in earmarks in fiscal 2010, compared to $93 million for Rogers and $97 million for Lewis.

In reality, the Tea Party had been split on the Appropriations race even though fiscal conservatives privately talked more highly of Kingston than of the other two candidates.

Members of the Tea Party Patriots, one of several Tea Party umbrella groups, backed Kingston and issued an alert to members asking them to call House Republican leadership and demand that no waivers be allowed. When the vote seemed likely to go against Kingston, group spokesman Randy Lewis said the Tea Party Patriots had never officially endorsed the Georgia Republican.

A spokeswoman for FreedomWorks, another Tea Party-affiliated group, said the organization took no position on the Appropriations race. By contrast, Sal Russo, a co-founder of the Tea Party Express, backed his friend Lewis.

The Club for Growth officially backed Kingston and said Tuesday that it was disappointed by the outcome of the race. The group said it would be monitoring the committee closely to ensure it meets public demands for spending cuts.

The selection of the chairman was only the first Appropriations test for the new Republican majority, which has vowed to remake the committee.

Leadership has called for a return to pre-stimulus 2008 spending levels in fiscal 2012, for slashing $100 billion in discretionary spending and for significant process reforms.

Progress toward those goals will be key measures of the committee’s performance in the eyes of many conservatives.

Another test could come as the powerful Appropriations subcommittee heads, known as “cardinals,” are chosen. Both Lewis and Kingston are now said to be interested in heading the Defense subcommittee. The slot could open, since Rep. Bill Young (R-Fla.) would need a waiver. This battle could prove to be round two of the gavel battle.

GOP leaders are also encouraging reformers and freshmen to join the committee, so far with limited success. As many as 16 new slots could open up for Republicans, but the GOP has discussed reducing the size of the committee.

Reformer Rep. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), who is slated to join Appropriations with the backing of House Speaker-designate John Boehner (R-Ohio), said Tuesday that if House Republicans cannot return spending to 2008 levels, then “nobody should take us seriously.”

Flake did not back one of the three contenders for the chairmanship.

Republican aides said Flake’s effectiveness on the committee would depend on what position he is now given, something he acknowledged to the audience at the Heritage Foundation.

In a Dec. 1 letter to colleagues that was made public this week, Flake called for the creation of a special oversight subcommittee within Appropriations to ferret out waste.

The new subcommittee would be able to take on programs the existing 12 subcommittees are unwilling to tackle, possibly because the programs are too dear to the congressional districts of the members, Flake said.

Flake said he has had trouble recruiting likeminded deficit hawks to the committee because members fear they will just be “farmed out” to the lowly subcommittee that controls legislative-branch spending, or will be otherwise “neutered.”

Reps. John Campbell (R-Calif.) and Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) had been talked about as budget-cutting candidates for subcommittee slots, but they have said they aren’t interested. On the other hand, fiscal conservative Rep. Doug Lamborn (R-Colo.) has thrown his hat into the ring for a slot, his office confirmed.

In a September speech to the American Enterprise Institute, Boehner called for appropriations bills to be broken up so that each department has its own bill. Transforming 12 spending bills into dozens more could be a challenge.

Boehner has also called for each appropriations bill to be considered on the House floor under an open rule allowing for amendments and for an end to the practice of wrapping spending bills into a catchall omnibus bill that is difficult to scrutinize, due to its massive length.

If Rogers is able to live up to his pledges to enact the GOP leadership’s reform as chairman, fiscal conservatives could forgive his past as a notorious earmark proponent.

Molly K. Hooper contributed to this report.