By Alexander Bolton - 05/04/06 12:00 AM EDT
Rep. Bill Thomas (R-Calif.), chairman of the Ways and Means Committee, is challenging appropriators to prove their stated desire for parity with other panels by justifying their staff and budget levels.
Thomas’s move is a carefully aimed counterattack by a chairman whose panel would be one of those most affected if earmark reform were broadened beyond appropriations to tax and authorization bills.
House appropriators have demanded parity between their committee and the other panels in the debate over earmarks, a demand that critics say is an effort to kill reform outright. During what one participant described as a “knock-down, drag-out fight” in the House Republican Conference last week, Thomas asked that appropriators justify their panel budget with the Committee on House Administration, just as other committees do, according to lawmakers present at the meeting.
The administration panel oversees the management of every committee except Appropriations.
“They determine their own budget and have their own staff without House Administration looking at it,” said Thomas, who is familiar with the intricacies of committee funding from his stint as chairman of the panel that determines each committee’s funding. “Ways and Means goes to House Administration and justifies its budget.”
But submitting to the jurisdiction of the Committee on House Administration could threaten the massive budget disparity between Appropriations and other committees.
The Appropriations Committee had nearly $19 million dollars budgeted for staff salaries last year, far more than any other committee, according to public records. The Ways and Means Committee, which with Appropriations is considered one of the most powerful in Congress, with jurisdiction over taxes, Social Security and Medicare, had $9 million budgeted for salaries. The Clerk of the House posts information on committees’ salary budgets.
Of the major committees reviewed, Financial Services had the second highest 2005 payroll, at $10 million plus.
Twenty-six staffers on the Appropriations Committee had a salary over $158,000 last year, nearly as much as lawmakers themselves earn. In total, 116 staffers on Appropriations were slated to earn salaries worth more than $100,000, according to House records.
Unlike the other committees of the House. Appropriations writes its own budget and passes it in the annual legislative-branch appropriations bill. Other panels receive their operating budgets from House Administration.
Appropriations Committee Chairman Jerry Lewis (R-Calif.) said a conflict of interest would arise if House Administration had oversight of his operating budget because his committee gives House Administration its budget and the funds it allocates to other committees.
“Bill Thomas and I have never had an opportunity to talk about his criticisms, but if he had a careful review he’d see we’ve been open to his input,” Lewis said.
He added that his committee’s budget is very small in the grand scheme of annual federal spending.
He said his operating budget is part of the “nits and gnats of our total appropriations budget that really mean nothing.”
Appropriators had until last week resisted earmark reform, a major component of yesterday’s House lobbying reform bill, by arguing that reform should include all authorizing committees as well as their own.
During a lengthy closed-door meeting last Thursday, GOP leaders promised that they would not bring the final version of the lobbying reform bill to the House floor, after negotiations with the Senate, unless the authorizing committees were eventually included in earmark reform.
Broadening earmark reform would most affect the Ways and Means Committee and the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. Ways and Means has the power to insert provisions into tax legislation worth tens of millions of dollars to special interests; Transportation has been blamed for fueling the clamor for spending reform after passing in 2005 a multiyear transportation bill laden with pet projects.
GOP leaders have told appropriators that Thomas and Rep. Don Young (R-Alaska), chairman of the transportation panel, will not oppose extending earmark reform to their committees.
One lawmaker said that Thomas was “trying to throw a fly in the ointment” by challenging the Appropriations Committee’s budget but that he would ultimately go along with the broader reform proposal.
Thomas said in an interview that he had held the view that appropriators should be held accountable for their operating costs when he chaired the Committee on House Administration in the 1990s. He added that he has held that opinion since 1982.
Critics have argued that earmark reform is necessary to shed more light on the activities of the Appropriations Committee, but allies of the Ways and Means Committee say that the tax panel is careful to be transparent.
One GOP aide noted that the committee routinely submits to the House detailed summaries of provisions in the legislation it produces. Recently, Ways and Means drafted summaries, committee reports, descriptions and revenue estimates for tax-reconciliation pension-reform legislation.
Lawmakers said that they expected Young, who drafted last year’s provision funding the so-called ‘Bridge to Nowhere,” to oppose expanding earmark reform but that, instead, he has been surprisingly amenable.
Rep. Vernon Ehlers (R-Mich.), the new chairman of the Committee on House Administration, confirmed that Thomas last week raised the issue of the Appropriations Committee justifying its staff and budget levels.
“The argument of the appropriators is that they are controlling the budget for the entire United States so why should they be accountable to a fellow committee?”
But Ehlers said he doubted that appropriators would be required to prove the worthiness of their operating costs any time soon.
“That is something that can wait for another day.”