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EDITORIAL: Taming committee chairmen

Moderate House leaders need conservative oversight

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Incoming House Speaker John A. Boehner disappointed many conservatives with his choices for three key committee slots. It is important to take action to ensure these chairmen don't get squishy.

Kentucky's Harold D. Rogers at Appropriations, Michigan's Frederick S. Upton at Energy and Commerce, and Alabama's Spencer T. Bachus III at Financial Services are capable of doing fine jobs. None, however, are as conservative as their chief, non-term-limited challengers, whose career ratings average 17 points better on a 100-point scale, according to the American Conservative Union and Citizens Against Government Waste. To keep the new chairmen in line, solid conservatives, including freshmen, need to be appointed to open positions on those committees, and subcommittee chairmanships should go to proven conservatives.

This is especially true for the Appropriations Committee, with its all-important power of the purse. As recently as August, Citizens Against Government Waste named Mr. Rogers the "Porker of the Month." With the public up in arms over the exploding federal debt, that committee needs new blood to help restrain the big spenders.

One way to do this would be to give veto power for selecting new appropriators to the fiscally responsible Republican Study Committee. The speaker could insist on the right to veto Mr. Rogers' choice of a staff director. This is the most powerful unelected position in the House outside of the speaker's office, so the stakes are high for putting someone good there. The speaker also could require future subcommittee chairmen to make pledges to do the leadership's bidding on conservative policy riders to appropriations bills. For example, the member overseeing the Health and Human Services budget would pledge to include the Hyde Amendment denying taxpayer funds for abortions.

Finally, the speaker can insist appropriations bills stay not just within, but well within, allocations provided by the Budget Committee chaired by conservative Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin. In practice, the Appropriations Committee and its chairman have broad discretion within budget limits, but the committee must be made to understand that the top-line budget amounts for each agency are exactly that: a maximum, not a mandate. Nothing in law requires appropriators to spend every dime allowed by the top-line allocation.

Firm steps are necessary to impress upon the so-called cardinals on the Appropriations Committee that they no longer are a party unto themselves able to use taxpayer funds for political feather-nesting. Congress won't be able to control the mountains of debt already piled on unborn generations of Americans if it can't even control the most discretionary parts of the federal budget. Mr. Boehner is a respected conservative, especially for his personal practice of eschewing earmarks. His challenge now is to keep appropriators on a very short leash.

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