May 17, 2006

Term Limits For Appropriators?

The New York Sun reports on a new initiative by tax activist Grover Norquist to rein in spending -- rule changes in both the House and Senate that limit the tenure on appropriations committees. Norquist wants to have more fresh faces each session in order to combat the descent of otherwise rational politicians into a spendthrift groupthink:

Grover Norquist, president of the advocacy group Americans for Tax Reform, is advancing a new approach to fighting government corruption: term limits for members of congressional appropriations committees.

Speaking to The New York Sun yesterday, Mr. Norquist claimed that members of appropriations committees developed a sort of groupthink over time, and regardless of their partisan affiliations, eventually began thinking like appropriators. ...

Mr. Norquist has recently traveled with Rep. Tom Feeney, a Republican of Florida, who supports the idea and will help introduce it into the House.

"We'll do it after the next election as a House rules change, which means you simply need a majority of the House caucus," Mr. Norquist explained. "It's a secret ballot."

When the Republicans took control of the House in 1994 and later the Senate, they enacted rules changes that required rotation of committee leadership spots. These rules, one should recall, created the controversy over the chairmanship of the Senate Judiciary Committee when it passed from Orrin Hatch to Arlen Specter. Some Republicans wanted to break the rule and keep Hatch as chairman, a proposal that had its attraction then and still does today, but in the end the Republicans chose to abide by their own rules.

This proposal intends to create a rule for Appropriations that once applied for the intelligence committees. Prior to 9/11, members could only serve a certain length on those panels due to a history of arguably excessive collegiality between the intelligence communities and their oversight committees. After 9/11, however, those rules were suspended when it clearly showed that the lack of experience in intelligence by members of these panels had kept significant issues from being recognized before disaster struck.

Will that same law of unintended consequences strike the appropriations process? Norman Ornstein of the conservative American Enterprise Institute thinks it will, as does the spokesman for House Appropriations chair Rep. Jerry Lewis (R-CA). It's difficult to see why, however. One can hardly equate budgeting with the complexities of intelligence work, and if there is one skill that appears to be universally possessed by members of Congress, it's the ability to spend money. Much of the actual skilled work in this process gets accomplished by staffers anyway, while the political decisions get made by the members.

Norquist's approach attempts to rectify the entrenched arrogation of power by those who sit on the most powerful panels in Congress. Lobbyist issues and bribery always seem to center on those who control the pursestrings, and for obvious reasons. The problems do not limit themselves to just the overt criminal activities that occasionally occur; giving a select group of people access to this spending control gives them power in other areas of Congress, increasing their influence to unhealthy levels. When someone has the power to cut off funding for a member's pet project, then that person can influence a whole range of legislation with the implicit threat to do so.

Will term limits on these committees address the entirety of the problem with spending and earmarks? No, but it will ensure that committee members understand that the kind of power games they play may one day get played back against them, a revelation that will encourage a bit more humility. It will also make it more difficult for leadership in both parties to keep reformers off the Appropriations commitees. The turnover will increase the odds that spending hawks get their representation and have a chance to reform a process that has spiraled out of control.

At the very least, the proposal will not hurt. If it shows no significant results, then it can be rescinded later. It doesn't replace more specific reforms on earmarks, such as the pork database or the line-item veto, but it doesn't conflict with those solutions, either. In the meantime, it will show creative thinking and a serious attempt to address at least some of the issues surrounding the sausage-making at the Capitol.


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