When four Republican freshmen were tapped to join the Senate Appropriations Committee this session, it was taken as a sign of the panel’s waning appeal in a no-earmarks era. Senators used to wait years to join the committee and even longer to rise up the ranks.
Four of the once-coveted seats — and even a subcommittee chairmanship — were extended to Steve Daines of Montana, Bill Cassidy of Louisiana, James Lankford of Oklahoma and Shelley Moore Capito of West Virginia. Since then, the newcomers have scrambled to find ways to have an impact. Capito said they’re all learning that they can bring change even sitting “all the way at the far end of the table” during full committee meetings — “freshman corner,” Daines called it.
But if the assignment has lost some of its luster in recent years, the four freshmen insist they haven’t noticed. “I think you’re seeing the freshmen very engaged, very thoughtful and getting into the weeds, getting deep into policy,” Daines said in an interview with CQ. “And importantly, actually getting it done.”
The reasons for the declining attraction of Appropriations are clear. Senators have fewer opportunities to stick pork into appropriations bills, thanks to a GOP moratorium on earmarks. And Congress’ recent habit of funding the government through temporary extensions or large omnibus measures means deals are hashed out by leadership, not through individual spending bills.
More proof? Dan Coats, R-Ind., jumped ship from Appropriations to Senate Finance before the start of the session, choosing junior membership on a new committee over a subcommittee chairmanship on Appropriations
The four freshmen — none of whom served on Appropriations during their tenures in the House — were selected for the panel by Senate leadership in December. It marked the first time since the 97th Congress in 1981-82 that as many as four freshmen from either party sat on Senate Appropriations, according to CQ records.
As committee work wrapped up last week, veteran GOP appropriators and staffers said the new kids on the block brought a serious energy boost to a fading committee.
Chairman Thad Cochran, R-Miss., praised their “valuable insight” and “engaging participation at hearings and markups.”
“Senators Cassidy, Capito, Daines and Lankford have shown great enthusiasm for the appropriations process,” Cochran said in a statement.
Individual spending bills have almost no chance of passage this year, with Democrats holding fast in opposition to try to force Republicans to negotiate a new budget deal that lifts discretionary spending caps enacted in 2011 (PL 112-25). But the four GOP newcomers can at least hang their hats on one notable accomplishment. They’re part of the first group in six years to approve all 12 spending measures.
Each of the GOP freshmen has approached committee work differently, leaving small marks on appropriations bills.
Daines, a workhorse since his brief tenure in the House — where he moved more bills through committee (six) than any of the 83 other House freshmen in the 113th Congress, according to Govtrack.us — has been highly active on appropriations, especially in matters affecting his home state.
On the Defense subcommittee, Daines backed provisions to prevent the relocation of an Air Force squadron based in Great Falls, Mont., and to fund engine modifications for C-130 aircraft used by the Montana Air National Guard. On Interior-Environment, he spoke out against fracking regulations and protections for greater sage grouse, both of which he said threaten his state’s energy sector.
He grilled Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack about the department’s sluggishness in conducting port inspections of bulk wheat — Montana’s largest export. On a national scale, one of Daines’ biggest wins was a bipartisan amendment he and Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., tacked onto the Military Construction-VA spending bill to allow VA doctors to recommend medical marijuana to veterans in states that allow the substance for medical purposes.
He counts 71 priority items he was able to secure across the 12 bills.
“I didn’t think that was going to be possible as a freshman,” Daines said. “I thought freshmen would be viewed as speak-when-spoken-to, just be quiet and show up and vote.”
Like Daines, Cassidy has used his committee post in the traditional way, to plug his state’s interests. After unseating former Sen. Mary L. Landrieu, Cassidy also took over the Democrat’s spot on Appropriations.
His subcommittee placements allowed him to challenge federal environmental regulations that he says threaten energy jobs in his state and to push policies to support Louisiana’s maritime industry.
In the post-earmarks era, Cassidy and Daines have shown that appropriators can still bring home the bacon. Cassidy helped stymie a bipartisan amendment to the Agriculture spending bill (S 1800) that would have ended federal subsidies for large sugar processors — a 16,000-job, $3.5 billion industry in Louisiana. He also secured millions of dollars in the Homeland Security bill for U.S. Coast Guard boats manufactured by a company in Jeanerette, La., and cybersecurity education programs at two Louisiana institutions.
Lankford, who in the House held a leadership role as chairman of the Republican Policy Committee, said he wants the party to be known for what it stands for, not how loudly it’s said — an approach he’s brought to Senate Appropriations.
The Oklahoma Republican tends to keep his remarks brief and he defers to senior appropriators in hearings. He’s used his post on the Financial Services subcommittee to drill down to the nitty-gritty of bureaucracy, hounding officials from the Securities and Exchange Commission to the Federal Communications Commission under the banner of cutting costs and scaling back regulations. He also grilled then-OPM Director Katherine Archuleta after the massive data breach at the agency, but stopped short of calling for her resignation. She stepped down July 10.
“So far, he’s been focusing on quietly learning and exploring ways to reduce spending,” a Lankford spokesman said.
That’s not to say Lankford hasn’t made a few waves. He poked some veteran committee members in the eye when he tried to end a budgetary maneuver that allows appropriators to direct excess money in the Crime Victims Fund — about $10 billion — for uses other than its intended purpose of aiding crime victims.
Lankford seemed to be channeling former Oklahoma Sen. Tom Coburn, his Senate predecessor and a longtime stickler on spending.
“At some point, we’re not being honest with the funding,” Lankford said at a June markup of the Commerce-Justice-Science spending bill ( HR 2578 ).
His amendment was easily shot down. The only other members who voted for it were two of his fellow freshmen, Cassidy and Daines.
The most senior of the four newcomers, Shelley Moore Capito, was chosen to head up the tiny Legislative Branch subcommittee. Working closely with ranking member Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii, Capito navigated a few bumpy issues under her jurisdiction — like hiring practices by the Capitol Police and low wages for Capitol restaurant workers, a topic that sparked feisty debate in House Appropriations — without much trouble.
“The fact that we were sort of investigating together helped,” Capito said of Schatz in an interview with CQ, describing their joint meetings with Capitol Police leaders.
Schatz said Capito has taken her obligation very seriously.
“She’s great — she’s a real professional,” he said in an interview. “Mostly, this is non-ideological stuff, so it put us in a pretty good position to collaborate.”
Capito also credited senior Republican members like Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, Jerry Moran of Kansas and Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky for helping her learn the ropes.
Daines said the sense of camaraderie and trust among the newcomers stemmed from their time together in the House.
“And when you’re looking for support for an amendment, sometimes the first place you go is to your fellow freshmen,” Capito added.