By Walter Alarkon and Kevin Bogardus - 05/06/10 12:33 AM EDT
Rep. Norm Dicks (D-Wash.) is positioning himself to become the new chairman of the House Appropriations Committee while keeping his spot as head of the Appropriations Defense subcommittee.
Dicks said Wednesday that he intends to succeed Rep. David Obey (D-Wis.), who announced his retirement. He also said he wants to keep his spot as chairman of the Appropriations Defense subcommittee, the most powerful of the 13 Appropriations sub-panels.
Dicks “is intending to seek the full committee chairmanship in the next Congress and — based on the precedent of Rep. Obey serving as Labor-HHS-Ed subcommittee [chairman] — he expects to retain the Defense subcommittee chair,” said Dicks’s chief of staff, George Behan.
Obey is the chairman of the major Appropriations subcommittee for Labor, Education and Health and Human Services spending in addition to holding the full committee’s chairmanship.
Rep. Chaka Fattah (D-Pa.) announced Wednesday he will challenge Dicks for the top spot. Fattah told The Hill that upping education funding would be his biggest priority if he’s elected chairman.
Fattah ranks 21st in committee seniority and does not chair any of its subcommittees.
Rep. Nita Lowey (N.Y.), who is the sixth-ranking House Democratic appropriator, won't run for the chairmanship, her office said. Other senior Democrats on the committee did not respond to inquiries.
To lead the full committee, Democrats need to retain their majority and Dicks would have to win support from the rest of the House Democratic Caucus, which holds elections to decide its chairmen.
House Democratic appropriators said Dicks is well-liked but added it’s not a given that he’ll take the top Appropriations post. Democrats will also have to survive a tough election climate to hold on to the House and retain power over the committee.
“Normally, seniority counts here, but David Obey got elected chair by skipping over people,” said Rep. Sam Farr (D-Calif.), an appropriator.
Obey became the chairman in 1994 after he defeated a more senior Democrat in a caucus-wide election. Obey relied on support from younger House Democrats and liberal members.
Farr and other Democratic appropriators said that Obey, a 20-term lawmaker, would be difficult to replace because he knows more about the appropriations process than any member of Congress.
“Obey leaving Congress is equivalent to a Supreme Court justice retiring, because he’s been here so long and he’s meant so much,” Farr said.
Rep. Mike Honda (D-Calif.), another appropriator, said Dicks would get strong consideration from other Democrats because he’s well-liked and has seniority.
After Dicks, the most senior Democrats on the Appropriations Committee are Reps. Alan Mollohan (W.Va.), Marcy Kaptur (Ohio) and Pete Visclosky (Ind.).
Obey’s departure could lead to more spending on earmarks, the tool used by lawmakers to steer federal dollars to their districts and states, said ardent earmark opponent Rep. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.).
“I think there are some very committed earmarkers [behind Obey],” said Flake, who noted that Obey was never comfortable with the increased use of the practice.
As Appropriations chairman, Obey required House members to post on their official websites each earmark request they made. Obey also instituted a ban on earmarks for for-profit companies this year.
Should Dicks become Appropriations chairman, it would be his third big jump since 2007. Three years ago, he became chairman of the Appropriations Interior and Environment subcommittee. When Rep. John Murtha (D-Pa.) died, Dicks succeeded him as chairman of the Defense subcommittee.
Obey leaving will open up his chairman’s spot for the Labor, Education and Health and Human Services subcommittee. Lowey, already chairwoman of the State and Foreign Operations subcommittee, is next in line there.
Several lobbyists began to coalesce around Dicks on Wednesday. Lobbyists said Dicks, respected by both sides of the aisle, would be a great fit to chair the committee because it has become a partisan battleground while also coming under attack for its earmarking powers.
Jim Walsh, a former 10-term New York Republican congressman, said “the committee is really under attack right now and its powers are being challenged.”
“Whoever the new person is, they will really need to fight for the power of the purse because the Senate and the White House are going to continue to do discretionary spending,” said the ex-lawmaker, now a government affairs counselor at K&L Gates.
Walsh, once an Appropriations Committee member, said Dicks is “a good bet” for taking the panel’s gavel and would lead the committee well.
“Norm is a member’s member. He is respected, hardworking. He has the complete package,” Walsh said.
Obey “was a difficult member to work with for other lawmakers because he was so passionate. He was a tough negotiator with the Senate Appropriations Committee,” said an appropriations lobbyist. “I think Mr. Inouye [chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee] is smiling a little bit now.”
By contrast, Dicks is on better terms with House leadership and will take his confrontations with other members behind closed doors, unlike the sometimes-dramatic Obey, said the lobbyist.
Lobbyists said both Obey and Dicks were accessible to K Street, and that their aides would typically answer requests and take meetings to discuss projects that needed earmarked funds.
One appropriations lobbyist said Obey was pragmatic in sponsoring earmarks and would often use his chairmanship to help other members.
“He didn’t really take advantage of the process for his home state. He was more pragmatic when dealing out the spoils of that position. Instead, he would top off an account for a member who was in a tough reelection race,” the lobbyist said.
Dicks is a longtime member of the Appropriations Defense subcommittee who took the panel’s gavel earlier this year. The lawmaker is comfortable with Pentagon contractors and especially with Boeing, a large employer that is based in his home state of Washington.
But Dicks’s plan to take over the full panel and keep his Defense spot may stretch him too thin. Walsh said Obey’s taking on both the full committee as well as the Labor and Health and Human Services subcommittee was too taxing for the chairman.
“If there is any criticism of [Obey], it is he tried to do too much. The committee chairman needs to let the subcommittee chairmen do their jobs,” Walsh said.