Rep. Dicks gets to keep top slots on Appropriations, defense spending

Rep. Norm Dicks (D-Wash.) will keep the top Democratic slot on the defense spending subcommittee while serving as the ranking member of the full Appropriations Committee.

A divided Democratic Caucus in a 72-94 vote rejected a resolution offered by Rep. Mel Watt (D-N.C.) that would have barred Dicks from remaining in the most senior Democratic slot on the defense spending committee.

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“The House Appropriations Committee has always kept its seniority,” Dicks said in a brief interview, noting that he’s served on the defense subcommittee since 1979. “This is the subcommittee I’ve been on throughout my entire career.”

Watt and others argued that Democrats who hold the most senior party posts should make room for other members in some of the top slots by giving up or taking a leave from their subcommittee seniority. Democrats returning to the minority will have far fewer slots on the move powerful House committees. 

Opponents argued the caucus should keep its tradition of allowing the top Democrat on a committee to also serve as the most senior member of a subcommittee. 

House Democrats spent more than an hour-and-a-half debating Watt’s amendment in a closed-door meeting. Members said the exchange was more heated than they had expected, although Dicks denied that it was a testy debate.

“Democracy is alive and well in the caucus when you take this long to make a decision,” said Rep. David Wu (D-Ore.), who declined to say how he voted.

Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) argued in favor of tradition. He and other supporters noted that Appropriations Chairman David Obey (D-Wis.) was allowed to keep the top position on the Health and Human Services spending subcommittee in this Congress. 

Especially when it comes to appropriations, supporters of Dicks said allowing joint roles make sense because most of the spending panel’s work is done at the subcommittee level. If the top Democrat gave that up, he or she could become less relevant to the overall process.

Watt and other Democratic members argued that the tradition should be ended for all committees because more junior members needed more opportunities to serve in leadership roles. Opponents also said the argument that the top Democrat would be giving up nearly all his power by relinquishing seniority on a subcommittee no longer makes sense in an era when Congress has been relying on a series of continuing resolutions and massive omnibus spending bills to finish its work. The top Democrat on the panel is intimately involved in crafting those larger bills.

“I don’t think the exception makes sense,” said Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.), the top Democrat on the Financial Services Committee who voted in favor of Watt’s resolution.

Last week Dicks received overwhelming support on a 123-64 vote to become the ranking member of the Appropriations Committee, defeating Rep. Chaka Fattah (D-Pa.). 

Some Democrats viewed Watt’s resolution as an attempt to catapult Fattah to the top spot because, if it passed, the resolution would have forced Dicks to choose between the ranking position on the full panel and the top position on the defense spending panel. One Democrat said it would have been a difficult choice for Dicks, whose district is home to defense giant Boeing.