Image: Steven LaTourette
Susan Walsh  /  AP
To Rep. Steven C. LaTourette and the eight other lawmakers who joined the House and Senate Appropriations committees this year, membership has its privileges.
updated 8/10/2009 11:02:15 AM ET 2009-08-10T15:02:15

Despite being in the minority party, Rep. Steven C. LaTourette has been able to double his earmark total in the past year and grab a prominent role in the debate over restructuring the auto industry.

The key to the Ohio Republican’s success: a seat on the Appropriations Committee.

For LaTourette and the eight other lawmakers who joined the House and Senate Appropriations committees this year, membership has its privileges.

Whether being able to secure more funding for local projects through earmarks, taking credit for attaching high-profile amendments to spending bills or having the chance to bend the ear of the numerous Cabinet secretaries who have appeared at subcommittee hearings, the new appropriators have quickly learned why a spot on a spending committee has been such a plum assignment for so many lawmakers over the years.

“I think you can have a greater impact as a new member than any other committee that I’ve been on,” said Tom Cole, R-Okla., who also joined the House Appropriations Committee this year.

Due to several GOP retirements and the increased ratio of Democrats on committees following the party’s recent electoral gains, five Republicans and four Democrats joined the spending panels this year.

In the House there are four new members: Cole, LaTourette and Democrats John Salazar of Colorado and Lincoln Davis of Tennessee.

In the Senate there are five: Republicans Susan Collins of Maine, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and George V. Voinovich of Ohio and Democrats Jon Tester of Montana and Mark Pryor of Arkansas.

Bipartisan influence
The new GOP appropriators have shown that while their party’s influence on the legislative process is minimal given that Democrats control Congress and the White House, a spot on the spending panels means clout can be wielded regardless.

LaTourette serves as a useful example. For one thing, he has been able to bring in more earmark funding. When all of the fiscal 2009 spending bills were enacted, LaTourette’s earmark total stood at about $11 million.

This year, he has secured more than $23 million in the 12 fiscal 2010 spending bills that have been passed by the House. (These totals include earmarks he sponsored alone and with others.)

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“I’m able to better take care of my district,” LaTourette said.

Earmark critics have long complained that Appropriations Committee members get more funding than most other lawmakers, and they cite it as evidence the system is not about rewarding funds based on the merit of the project.

But LaTourette also serves as an example of why being on the committee has advantages beyond earmarks.

When the House committee met late on July 7 to consider the Financial Services spending bill (HR 3170), LaTourette offered an amendment to require automakers that have taken government funding, namely General Motors Corp. and Chrysler LLC, to reinstate agreements with auto dealers dropped as part of their restructuring.

The proposal hit home with members from both sides of the aisle who were upset that automakers had ended their relationships with local dealers.

The committee adopted the amendment with bipartisan support, and the provision remained in the bill on House passage, despite opposition from the Obama administration.

The amendment is similar to a proposal from Rep. Dan Maffei of New York, who has served as the Democrats’ point man on the issue.

But while Maffei’s bill (HR 2743) has yet to see any action, the Republican LaTourette was able to use his spot on the Appropriations Committee to attach his language to legislation that has more urgency than most, since spending bills have to be enacted every year to keep the government funded, and take a lead role on an issue important to his district.

Clout for Senate newcomers
The Senate’s rookie appropriators have seen their influence grow as well, particularly the Republicans.

Collins, Murkowski and Voinovich didn’t merely join the spending panel because of GOP retirements; they assumed the ranking spots on the Financial Services, Legislative Branch and Homeland Security subcommittees, respectively.

Image: Collins
Alex Wong  /  Getty Images
Sen. Susan Collins, right, on Capitol Hill in Washington on Aug. 3.
All three senators have been able to secure more earmark funding for fiscal 2010 in the bills approved so far by the committee than they were able to at this point in the process in fiscal 2009.

Collins said her spot on the committee allowed her to get $5 million to establish a National Center for Deepwater Offshore Wind Research at the University of Maine, which she said is a top priority she shares with other state officials.

The earmarks that Collins secured by herself and with fellow Maine Republican Sen. Olympia J. Snowe in the 11 fiscal 2010 bills approved by committee so far add up to nearly $40 million, which is about $25 million more than the comparable total in the fiscal 2009 bills approved by the committee. This difference does not include the $3.3 million in the fiscal 2010 Interior-Environment bill, which the committee did not consider last year.

As ranking GOP member on the Financial Services Subcommittee, Collins said she also has been able to make her case for dealing with oversight of financial markets, which are under scrutiny for their role in the current economic downturn.

She strongly backed subcommittee Chairman Richard J. Durbin, D-Ill., in his push to increase the budgets of the Securities and Exchange Commission and the Commodity Futures Trading Commission.

Collins also had a chance to tout her bill (S 664) to create a council of regulators to monitor systemic financial risks directly to Treasury Secretary Timothy F. Geithner during a June hearing.

Image: Tester
Alex Wong  /  Getty Images file
Sen. Jon Tester on Capitol Hill in Washington on Dec. 2, 2008.
“You have access to more decision makers and they tend to be more responsive,” she said in regard to the fact that Cabinet secretaries and agency heads often testify before appropriations panels to make the case for their budget proposals.

Tester and Pryor have not been as visible as their Republican counterparts. Neither has greatly increased his earmark haul, either.

But Tester said he wasn’t expecting that number to increase greatly. He has embraced other advantages of being on the committee, such as keeping tabs on issues important to his state, including a national animal identification system to track livestock disease outbreaks.

While funding for the program was knocked out of the Agriculture spending bill (HR 2997) in the House, the Senate retained it, though at a lower spending level.

For a junior member, there also is the convenience that Senate Appropriations subcommittees only have a handful of members, a perk that becomes apparent when a hearing is held with top administration officials and members can make their case for their priorities.

“You really have the opportunity to ask a lot of questions without having to wait an hour or two,” Tester said.

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