Rep. Clarence D. "Doc" Long, a colorful Maryland Democrat who served in the House from the 1960s to 1980s, had a unique take on the Golden Rule befitting a subcommittee chairman of the powerful House Appropriations Committee. "Them that has the gold makes the rules," read a sign he reportedly hung in the House Appropriations Committee hearing room. Any Washington lawmaker or lobbyist can vouch for the truth of this statement: while other congressional committees set policy, it's the appropriators, known as the "cardinals," who hold the purse strings and therefore an outsized degree of power.
Nowhere is this truer than defense, which represents the biggest slice of the fiscal pie Congress controls. The Defense Department is the largest federal agency in the United States, consuming more than half of discretionary spending, purchasing more than $1 billion of goods and services every day, and employing some 3 million people globally. These factors make defense appropriations a "must pass" spending bill, the sheer size and complexity of which attracts lots of parochial projects that spread the wealth to lawmakers' home districts. In the words of an equally colorful contemporary of Doc Long's named Charlie Wilson (D-TX), "Anybody with any brain can figure out that if they can get on the defense subcommittee, that's where they ought to be, because that's where the money is."
The defense spending bill is still Congress's largest, but its riches will not be as accessible to lawmakers as in the past. The 113th Congress faces a decline in defense funding regardless of "fiscal cliff" outcomes. The last Congress passed a moratorium on earmarks -- provisions lawmakers add to bills that direct funds to specific projects -- after years of scandals and criticism over excessive pork-barreling. And in the recent elections, voters rejected Republican candidates' assertion that defense spending should stay high in order to protect local jobs. So how will the cardinals of the 113th keep defense dollars flowing to their districts, and what will that mean for defense policy?
A look at the changing constellations in the defense appropriations firmament provides some indication. While the Senate Defense Appropriations Subcommittee will still be run by longtime chairman Daniel Inouye (D-HI) and ranking member Thad Cochran (R-MS) -- both of whom also lead the full committee -- the House subcommittee saw powerful ranking member and longtime cardinal Norm Dicks (D-WA) retiring and Chairman C.W. Bill Young (R-FL) forced out by term limits. The number two on the Republican side, Jerry Lewis of California, is also retiring, and the names most frequently floated for chairman are Rodney Frelinghuysen of New Jersey and Jack Kingston of Georgia. Frelinghuysen's district is home to Picatinny Arsenal, a large Army munitions base with almost 5,000 military and civilian personnel, while Kingston's district contains four military installations, including the massive Fort Stewart Army base.
The biggest dog in the fight for ranking member is also the most controversial. Pete Visclosky (D-IN) is entering his 28th year in the House after winning reelection by a landslide last week. He took a hiatus from his chairmanship of the Energy and Water subcommittee in 2009 while under investigation for his connections to a lobbying firm indicted for funneling millions in illegal campaign contributions to lawmakers in exchange for millions worth of earmarks. The top beneficiaries of the firm, called the PMA Group, were all cardinals: Visclosky, Young, Virginia Republican James Moran, Ohio Democrat Marcy Kaptur, and the king of the cardinals, John Murtha (D-PA).