Groups wary of Cochran's desire to cut spending

Taxpayer watchdog groups say they are troubled by Sen. Thad Cochran’s (R-Miss.) recent decision to hire Keith Kennedy as staff director of the powerful Appropriations Committee, claiming it is a signal that the senator is not serious about cutting spending.

Kennedy was the top Republican Appropriations Committee staffer under Sen. Mark Hatfield from 1981 to 1987 and again from 1995 to 1997. His recent reappointment makes him the first person to serve three nonconsecutive terms as majority staff director on the Appropriations Committee.

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Taxpayer groups are criticizing Sen. Thad Cochran’s (R-Miss.) decision to hire Keith Kennedy.

“If [Kennedy’s] philosophy is similar to his old boss’s, he’s not going to try and cut spending like we’d hope,” said Tom Schatz, president of Citizens Against Government Waste (CAGW).

“This does represent quite possibly one of several indicators that we will have a fight on our hands to get a grip on federal spending,” said Pete Sepp, vice president of communications for the National Taxpayers Union (NTU).

“Senator Hatfield was not a great budget cutter, and usually the staff reflects the boss,” Schatz said. “Hatfield had one of the lowest ratings in terms of voting to cut taxes and curb spending, making him one of the more liberal Republicans, so it’s not exactly what we’d want.”

Unlike his counterpart in the House — Rep. Jerry Lewis (R-Calif.) — Cochran’s colleagues have not pressured him on how he intends to rein in federal spending in the 109th Congress.

Before Lewis was elected to chair the House Appropriations Committee earlier this month, conservative Republicans put him through a strenuous vetting process where he promised to rein in federal spending.

Lewis recently announced that Frank Cushing will replace James Dyer as the Appropriations Committee staff director. Cushing previously worked for Lewis.

Dyer was regarded as one of the most powerful staffers on Capitol Hill; he attracted intense criticism from conservatives for the committee’s spending habits.

Meanwhile, fiscal conservatives say they see similarities between Hatfield and Cochran’s track records.

“Senator Cochran’s rating is not necessarily a sign of the fiscal discipline we need right now,” Sepp said.

Each year, the NTU rates members of Congress based on their actual voting records on issues affecting fiscal policy such as taxes, spending and debt.

Hatfield received a B-minus in 1996 from NTU and a 43 percent lifetime rating from CAGW. In 2003, NTU also gave Cochran a B-minus and CAGW gave him a 57 percent lifetime score.

NTU gave Lewis a C for his work during the 108th Congress, while CAGW gave him a 51 percent lifetime rating.

Kennedy defended his previous tenure on the Appropriations Committee. “For all 16 years under Hatfield’s leadership, we lived within the [budget] caps presented to us.”

Cochran emphasized that the focus should not be on Kennedy: “I am the chairman of the committee. The committee will not be led by the staff. … The committee will be led by me, not the other way around.”
Kennedy agreed, saying, “I am just the mechanic; the chairman is driving the car. He decides where it is going and how it will get there.”

Cochran praised Kennedy: “I have known Keith since I joined the Appropriations Committee in January of ’81. I was impressed with him because of his diligence, dependability and his character. I think he’s one of the finest persons I’ve had an opportunity to work with since I’ve been in the Senate.”

Cochran, who formerly chaired the Agriculture Committee as well as the subcommittee on Homeland Security, supported the 2002 farm bill and has stressed the importance of national security — even if it means increasing defense spending.

Asked if he would be reluctant to cut defense spending, Cochran responded, “I have no specific programs in mind to cut at this point, but I am inclined to support the president’s budget.”

“We will all have to use our own judgment,” Cochran said. “There are going to be differences among members depending on what their states’ needs are and I am going to work with both Republicans and Democrats alike.”

After leaving Capitol Hill, Kennedy served as a senior public-policy adviser at the law firm Baker, Donelson, Bearman, Caldwell and Berkowitz. He then returned to the Hill in 2003 to become deputy Senate sergeant at arms under William Pickle.

NTU President John Berthoud said he hoped Kennedy’s Hill experience would guide his decisionmaking.

“It’s certainly our hope that Kennedy and all the Republicans will see there is a political imperative to do the right thing here,” Berthoud said. “Holding the line on spending is the linchpin and hopefully his past experience on the Hill will push him to hold down spending.”

“In the first Bush term, Congress did a terrible job of holding the line on spending and as a result we now have bigger deficits,” Berthoud said. “It is going to be imperative on Mr. Kennedy, Mr. Cochran and Mr. Lewis in the House. It is a new day in Appropriations.”