The Decline of the Cardinals

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There used to be an old saying that in Washington there were actually three Parties: Republicans, Democrats and Appropriators. The House and Senate Appropriations Committees were so powerful that the subcommittee chairmen were dubbed “cardinals.” The committees were the most bipartisan on the Hill as both sides moved to protect each other’s pork. Five years ago earmarking was so prevalent that the vogue earmark in 2006 created centers in members districts devoted to helping businesses apply for more earmarks. Then along came Jim DeMint.

DeMint declared from the beginning of his Senate career that he was at war with the appropriators from both parties. It was DeMint who brought down the so-called bridge to nowhere, an earmark authored by his fellow Republican Ted Stevens, then the chairman of the Appropriations Committee. And it was thanks to DeMint and politicians of his ilk that earmarking is now a thing of the past.

The mountain came to Mohamed DeMint in the form of the Tea Party and appropriating – a core constitutional duty of Congress – has become a dirty word. The third party has been subsumed by partisanship. Sure, House Republicans in January could have chosen Rep. Jack Kingston, who was endorsed by the Club for Growth, to chair the committee. Instead, they opted for the more moderate Hal Rogers. But Rogers has been dragged to the right nevertheless. Rogers first proposed $35 billion in cuts and was forced up to $100 billion by an impatient freshman class.

Where the appropriations committees once produced bland bipartisan statements, the process in recent years has become hyper partisan. Republicans put out release after release hammering then-House Appropriations Committee Chairman David Obey for the stimulus. And this year the committees’ Democratic staffs have been working overtime to illustrate how proposed GOP cuts could be dangerous to Americans’ health and safety.

They say in Washington that change comes slowly, like turning an aircraft carrier, as President Obama is fond of saying. But it is striking how completely the culture of spending has changed in five-years’ time. The cardinals may as well be druids for the loss of devotees to their religion. The committees these days spend more time figuring out how to cut than appropriate. The third party is gone – or perhaps the pendulum has merely swung to a new, fourth pole, the Tea Party.