- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 15, 2004

“Jerry Maguire,” the semi-fictional sports agent of 1996 movie fame, popularized the line “show me the money.” Last week, House Labor-Health and Human Services (HHS) Appropriations Committee Chairman Ralph Regula modified the maxim, pulling off what amounts to huge cultural change in the way that the congressional spending process works. Mr. Regula, a Republican congressman from Ohio, essentially told the Democrats: “Show me your votes, and then I’ll show you the money.”

It worked. Last Thursday all 192 House Democrats present voted for the $496.6 billion fiscal 2005 Labor-HHS Appropriations bill — a stark contrast from a year ago when literally the opposite happened — every House Democrat present voted against the Labor-HHS bill. Why the change?

You might call it Ralph’s Rules — if you vote against the bill, you’re not entitled to any of the earmarked funds, a condition he laid down last year when the House considered the fiscal 2004 Labor-HHS bill. Even though about a third of the total funding in that bill was “earmarked” for them, every House Democrat voted against it. When the bill moved to conference committee last fall, Mr. Regula stripped out the Democratic earmarks.

Mr. Regula’s strategy was considered audacious at the time. “No one thought he would follow through,” a lobbyist working the appropriations process told me.

But his fellow Republicans applauded the move. “You can’t have it both ways,” a GOP leadership aide said. “Last year all Democrats wanted to take potshots at the bill here in Washington and then claim credit for the earmarks back home. Why should you get the benefits if you trash the bill?”

One GOP staffer who has worked on appropriations issues for many years said this: “What really bothered Regula last year was the Democratic Caucus taking a position against the bill on the floor and telling all their members to vote ‘no,’ even though many of the Democrats benefited.” The two top Democratic leaders (Nancy Pelosi of California and Steny Hoyer of Maryland) both have long-standing tenures on the Appropriations Committee. One senior Republican staffer told me he believed the Pelosi-Hoyer appropriations background propels them to use spending measures to make political points — often to their party’s detriment.

It is now commonplace for Democrats to vote “no” to please their leadership. In the highly partisan environment of the modern Congress, one gets the impression that Democratic leaders urge members to vote “no” just because Republicans vote “yes.”

Yet this may be changing. Mr. Regula’s move struck a blow against today’s partisan culture. Democratic lawmakers now had to make a choice: Cast a symbolic vote to follow their leadership’s obstructionist approach or vote “aye” because the legislation included provisions that benefited their districts. Last week, the districts won and the Democratic leadership lost.

Securing Democratic support for the bill was a Republican coup. “In years past, we were afraid to bring up the Labor-HHS measure because we thought we might not have the votes to pass it,” a senior House appropriations staffer told me. Last year’s measure passed by a razor-thin 215-208 straight party-line vote. Not this time.

The vote last week was an “unprecedented development” one appropriations staffer said. “We sat on the floor and watched those votes go up with amazement,” he said.

One long-time appropriations staffer also told me the vote represented a return to normalcy. “Twenty years ago members would never think about voting against a bill if it included something for their districts.”

But it may also be a sign that Democrats are settling into a long-term minority mindset. Fighting partisan battles in the House and getting nothing for it is beginning to weigh on many Democrat lawmakers. By supporting the appropriations process they can at least secure some benefits for their districts.

Some Democrats argue they supported the bill because it included an amendment the House adopted by a vote of 223-193 blocking the Bush administration’s so-called “overtime rules.” Yet House Democrats decided to not “whip” against the underlying bill even before they knew the outcome of the overtime amendment, suggesting they recognized that forcing members to vote “no” and jeopardize earmarks would cause a rebellion. Normally, the Democratic whip notice recommends a party position on a bill. Last week’s, issued before the overtime amendment, gave no guidance.

Mindless partisanship met its match last week due to the actions of a mild-mannered lawmaker from Ohio. Now when the Democratic leadership asks its members to walk the plank to make a blatantly partisan point, they’ll hear another Jerry Maguire admonition whispering in their ear: “Help me help you.”

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