- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 1, 2005

Some members of the House are racing back to Washington, cutting their Memorial Day recess a bit short. And while a little winded, no one’s complaining about the extra work. These legislative sprinters are members of the House Appropriations Committee, who resume legislating next Tuesday, even as most of their colleagues are still traveling. The legislative aerobics is doing more than raising heart rates; the committee is also on pace to process this year’s annual spending bills in record time, an outcome that could have a major positive impact on fiscal discipline down the road.

The breakneck work ethic is all part of the new world order at the House Appropriations Committee, orchestrated by Rep. Jerry Lewis, California Republican. Mr. Lewis, the panel’s new chairman, has become a lawmaking impresario of sorts this year, impressing congressional leaders and rank-in-file members alike with his legislative success and management skills.

Accelerating the pace of the appropriations process was clearly needed. Over the past two decades, producing annual spending bills on time was about as rare as America Coming Together doing a pro-President Bush media buy. Tardiness in the process has resulted in more frequent use of omnibus year-end spending legislation. These behemoths are like legislative air-lifters, transporting spending measures and other extraneous matters lacking political or policy wings of their own — including unrelated matters added in the dark, requiring night-vision goggles to identify the bills’ details.

Many believe omnibus spending bills are a prime culprit in the erosion of fiscal discipline. House Majority Leader Tom DeLay has tried to put a stake in the heart of the practice, arguing he won’t allow it to continue. Mr. Lewis’ legislative pace is helping to sharpen Mr. DeLay’s substantive point.

A recent report by the Congressional Research Service suggests legislative lethargy leads to increased use of the omnibus. Only 23 percent of the regular appropriations bills over the past two decades were completed before the beginning of the fiscal year on Oct. 1, according to the report. The practice has also been used more in recent years — four times between fiscal years 1986 and 1996, but eight times between 1997 and 2005. Mr. Lewis has the type of legislative background to heal this process.

First elected in 1978, he is the legislative embodiment of the old Joni Mitchell song, “Both Sides Now,” seeing Congress from a variety of perspectives, all of which contribute to his success as chairman. He toiled in the minority for his first 16 years in the House — building empathy for the plight of Democrats. He served in a variety of leadership capacities in his own party, including the House Republican Conference — giving him perspective on the importance of coordination with House Speaker Dennis Hastert and Mr. DeLay. He has also chaired two important subcommittees since 1995 — gaining critical experience in managing the legislative process and appreciation of the important role of the “College of Cardinals,” the name given to the appropriations subcommittee chairs.

These past experiences shape his current leadership style and contribute to his early victories. “Consultation is the key to his success,” House Republican Conference Chairwoman Deborah Pryce told me. “He talks to everyone — the leadership, the Democrats, his subcommittee chairs and the administration. There are very few surprises and the dialogue means lots of things get worked out in advance. Everyone’s really impressed with the job he’s done so far this year.” Yet the spending sprint is no spending spree. “Right now overall spending in the appropriations bills could come in below last year’s level,” committee spokesman John Scofield told me. “Many of the bills will actually terminate certain programs, like the Science, State, Justice and Commerce Subcommittee bill, which eliminates 12,” he said. The House Interior, Energy and Water and Labor-Health and Human Services bills will also end many programs targeted for termination in the White House budget — a welcome development for fiscal conservatives.

When the House returns next week and passes the Agriculture Appropriations bill, it will have almost reached the halfway mark, processing the fifth of the 11 spending bills, with others in the queue for consideration shortly. Skeptics worry that the Senate could drop the baton and slow the process down, but Mr. Lewis and his colleagues have set an impressive pace. Fiscal conservatives should hope they have endurance as they move to the next leg of this year’s spending sprint.

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