The Power of the Purse
It’s time to remake the House Appropriations Committee.


The new GOP-controlled House has pledged to rein in federal spending over both the short and the long term. To have any shot at success, though, Republican leadership must first overhaul that bastion of government largesse: the House Appropriations Committee.

This will require more than simply changing the players involved. The overhaul must penetrate deep into the committee’s longstanding culture, in which appropriators, their professional staff, and legions of lobbyists serve as a mutually reinforcing triad bent on increasing spending today, tomorrow, and forevermore.

Taxpayers should be encouraged by the package of House rules changes championed by Speaker John Boehner (R., Ohio) and recently adopted by the full House.

Say goodbye to:

— the so-called “Gephardt Rule,” which allowed the House to raise the debt ceiling without voting on the issue directly;

● the “pay-as-you-go” budget rule, which tilted the playing field in favor of tax increases to meet deficit goals — it’s now replaced with an approach that favors spending cuts;

● budgetary tricks that hide the actual long-term fiscal impact of expansions to entitlement programs — now replaced with a more honest, transparent, and forward-looking approach; and

● the special treatment for transportation projects that lets lawmakers pay for them by using general tax revenues in addition to the proceeds from the federal gas tax. This practice replaced the “user fee” model built to finance the interstate-highway system with one that allowed Congress to underwrite numerous non-highway projects — such as local mass-transit systems, bike trails, roadside flower gardens, and hiking paths — with no clear nexus to national interests. Now, federal funding for transportation projects will have to come solely from its traditional source — the gas tax.

As cultural “change agents” go, these reforms constitute a good start. But they are inherently limited. After all, such reforms presume that lawmakers, especially appropriators, are congenital spendthrifts whose extravagance with taxpayer dollars can be restrained only by procedural straitjackets. And there is good reason to feel this way. Virtually everyone who follows congressional procedure, after all, sees the House Appropriations Committee as the perpetual source of all spending evils. They believe it’s always been this way.

But nothing could be farther from the truth. In The Power of the Purse, the classic 1966 study of the appropriations process, political scientist Richard F. Fenno Jr. describes a set of mores within the post–World War II House and Senate committees that would shock today’s Washington cognoscenti. Appropriators of that era, it seems, saw their primary role as fiduciaries for beleaguered taxpayers — as protectors of the purse, as it were.

During those days, committee members viewed executive-branch bureaucrats warily, sensing that bureaucrats’ primary interest was in expanding their fiefdoms. Bureaucrats, committee members knew, padded their annual budget requests well beyond what was actually required to run their programs. The primary role of appropriators, committee members believed, was to serve as a counterweight to this tendency, paring back whatever budget requests the bureaucrats submitted. Their investigative and legislative energies were directed toward saving taxpayers a few hundred thousand dollars here, a few hundred thousand there.