Republican leaders have bucked pleas from some conservatives for a massive staff shakeup of the House Appropriations Committee — a move critics say would help the party fulfill its promise to reform and tamp down Washington's out-of-control spending practices.
But many GOP lawmakers, political experts and even some tea party activists say overturning the staff would be a mistake, noting that a high level of expertise and institutional knowledge are needed to help write the nation's complex spending bills.
"The reason you want to keep them - they know this stuff," said Norm Ornstein, a congressional expert with the conservative-leaning think tank American Enterprise Institute. "They know the programs. They know how the spending works."
Bringing in a new staff would be extremely difficult if the committee is to function efficiently, said Steve Ellis, vice president of the watchdog group Taxpayers for Common Sense.
"I don't think you can completely clean house," he said. "There is a value to having a professionalization of the staff there, just because they have a job to do and they have to get it done under a lot of constraints."
But Mr. Ellis also noted the risk to retaining too many career staffers if Republicans are serious about changing the culture of spending in Washington.
"You have to make some changes, some modifications. And retaining the same folks that 5-6 years ago were writing budget-busting bills is really a problem," he said. "So it's a delicate tightrope."
House Appropriations Committee Chairman Harold Rogers' top two staffers — Bill Inglee, chief clerk/staff director, and Will Smith, deputy staff director — didn't directly work with the panel during the recently ended 111th Congress.
Mr. Inglee, who has held several staff positions on Capitol Hill, is a former defense industry lobbyist with Lockheed Martin. Mr. Smith for the past 12 years has worked in the congressional office of Mr. Rogers, Kentucky Republican and a longtime appropriator. He also once served on the Senate Appropriations State, foreign operations and related programs subcommittee staff.
But the bulk of the 50-plus member staff — which has yet to be finalized — are holdovers from the 111th Congress.
"The reason why so many staffers stay with the committee is that the work requires a level of technical budgetary expertise that doesn't exist anywhere else," said a senior House Republican aide. "This staff needs to know the ins and outs of every account within a [federal] agency they're dealing with."
Because the size and complexity of appropriations bills often goes beyond the normal expertise of most lawmakers, appropriators tend to give significant deference to their committee's staff.
"Lawmakers can only make the right decisions on the best use of taxpayer dollars if they're given the right budgetary information," the aide said.
The committee will be under intense scrutiny this year as Speaker John A. Boehner, Ohio Republican, has promised significant spending cuts, greater transparency in the appropriations process and a moratorium on earmarks — lawmaker pet spending projects inserted into bills.
Rep. Jeff Flake, Arizona Republican, a longtime earmark opponent who recently joined the appropriations committee, says he's OK with Mr. Rogers' staff markup in large part because he chose a chief of staff from off Capitol Hill.
Rep. Jack Kingston, Georgia Republican a committee member who ran unsuccessfully for chairman in late 2010, said having a new chairman and top-level advisers is more important than clearing out the dozens of longtime staffers on the panel.
"It's equivalent of a new football coach; you don't have to get rid of the whole team if you've got a new coach," he said. "You're going to have new plays, new ways of doing things."
In addition to retaining many professionals who worked for the committee's former ranking Republican, Rep. Jerry Lewis of California, Mr. Rogers is expected to hire some staffers from former chairman Rep. David R. Obey, Wisconsin Democrat, who retired this month - a long-standing custom for one of the most bipartisan panels in Congress.
"When you get into the weeds of some of these programs, they're really not that partisan, and these people are really good at being professional numbers counters," Mr. Kingston said.
The appropriations' staff is among the most autonomous on Capitol Hill, and holds unusually strong sway with lawmakers. But with Republicans under intense pressure to cut spending, appropriators will be in no mood this Congress to give staffers unchecked authority to draft legislation, Mr. Ornstein said.
Appropriators also must resist pressure from tea party conservatives from potentially damaging program cuts, said William Galston, a congressional expert with the Brookings Institution, a liberal-leaning Washington think tank, who said staffers can serve as a restraining voice of reason.
"Retaining people with experience is a way of retaining capacity to govern effectively," he said.
Levi Russell, a spokesman with the Tea Party Express, a California-based conservative group, said he is concerned there may be too many holdovers on the staff. But he added he's willing to give Mr. Rogers the benefit of a doubt — for now.
"Our whole thing is, we want the results of fiscal sanity and responsibility," he said. "If these guys in the Appropriations Committee have seen the light and have gotten the message and are willing to do things differently than have been done in the past, then great ... But if the same people means no real change ever comes about, then they're going to hear from us."
© Copyright 2014 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.