The eyes seem unfocused at first, then you realize they have locked onto a distant unknown, even though something closer seems to be the object of attention. The pupils widen. The person has stopped using power; he or she has become power. The body tingles, and for a brief shimmering moment, the political beast simply is. No correlation exists between the glaze-eye of power and actual power. The experience is entirely subjective, an internal political orgasm. The beast is unleashed and can produce fear in those who watch too closely.
I saw the glaze-eye in White House Chief of Staff Hamilton Jordan at the Panamanian Embassy the night the Panama Canal treaties were signed in 1979.
I saw it again in Congressman Jim Mattox the night he won the Democratic nomination for Texas attorney general in 1982.
It is the same look that seared out of the avaricious gaze of Majority Whip Tony Coelho, the Appetite Who Walked Like A Man, and the same that accompanied Coleman's arrogant chuckle when we would sit back with weary satisfaction and sip whiskies, ties and tongues loosened, and contemplate having survived
a particularly treacherous day of politics, deals, and compromise.
I saw it shine especially brightly on the day in late January 1985 when, thanks to fellow Texan House Majority Leader Jim Wright, Coleman won a seat on the board of directors of the Favor Factory -- the Committee on Appropriations of the U. S. House of Representatives.1 The true glaze-eye of power is reserved for the big time. It is not about local school board power, but national power, the ability to say and do things that can alter the course of the country. This power is universally recognized and the ability to manipulate it is hardly the hush-hush stuff of back rooms and shadows; in today's Capitol Hill culture, it is displayed like a prize ribbon. One job-seeking lobbyist inadvertently exposed this attitude in a resume circulated to Capitol Hill offices.2
John Howerton's experience was typical. He had been the director of the Washington office of ASARCO for eleven years before getting the axe in a reorganization. His resume reminded prospective employers that his "substantial contact base on the Capitol expands from legislators in areas where we have operations. . . . " He claimed to have obtained a cool $1 million for his company in an appropriations bill. His "Major Lobbying Achievement," he maintained, was how to:
[s]uccessfully turn around key congressional staff members' negativeattitudes by emphasizing corporate credibility through techniques
In other words, buying drinks and sending Hill rats on junkets, which go a long way toward changing "negative attitudes. " Howerton also spelled out the direct connection between winning appropriations dollars and PAC contributions to members:
Met our corporate objectives establishing and administering company political action committee (PAC). Raised more than $125,000
candidates. Organized and managed network of politically knowledgeable local plant managers who keep close contact with their
Like many good lobbyists, he raised the money, picked the hits, and worked a return on his investment by keeping the members' feet to the fire through local political pressure.
More important than even the kind of campaign contributions bragged about by John Howerton, however, was the Appropriations seat would allow us to gild Coleman's image by redefining the fundamental standards by which the congressman's job performance would be judged. We would be beholden no longer to philosophical, moral, or visionary definitions, or even the political and legislative issues the congressman voted on. Money for the congressional district in the form of specific federal spending projects would become our measure -- a definition that all but guaranteed success.
When Coleman was reappointed Majority Whip-At-Large seven days later, we larded the pork, claiming in a news release that "Becoming Majority Whip-At-Large will ... maximize the benefits of my recent selection to the House Appropriations Committee. I can identify and support El Paso's interests in the committee that has the power of the purse over federal spending, and then take our case directly to the House leadership."3 Coleman, from the beginning, would consciously define his own leadership, not by issues, legislation, or vision, but by how many times he could make the federal cash register chime.
From the farm bill to South Africa sanctions, Middle East arms sales, and more, 1985 was the year Congress seized control of the nation's agenda from Ronald Reagan, but the Favor Factory danced to its own peculiar tune. Coleman's cash-gobbling attitude was typical of Appropriations members, rookie and veteran alike. Oklahoma Democrat Wes Watkins bragged to the press in 1989 of his "master plan" to secure appropriations projects for his rural district, an effort so successful he needed wall maps to keep track of the money. Watkins attached amendments and report language to every
possible spending bill for water projects, research, tourism -- anything
he could get his hands on. As Mississippi Sen. Thad Cochran remarked
to the press, "You could look at his district as one massive
demonstration project." In the Fiscal Year 1990 Agriculture
Appropriations bill, for example, Watkins added $500,000 for "rural
industrial incubators," $100, 000 for catfish research, and $433,000 for
a state public trust. He also won $3 million for an Advanced
Technology Research Center at Oklahoma State University) $300,000
for a nonprofit group promoting commercial applications of technology,
and a $200,000 down payment on a reservoir.4 As then-House
Majority Leader Thomas Foley told the press in 1988, "One person's
pork-barrel project is another person's wise investment in the local
It is a simple concept to grasp: you sit around a table and divide up the money. Anything that gets in the way of that process -- philosophy, conscience, and so on -- gets checked at the door. In the Fiscal Year 1990 VA-HUD-Independent Agencies appropriations bill, the members of the VA-HUD-Independent Agencies Subcommittee wallowed in pork. Chairman Bob Traxler (D-MI) hit the jackpot at $990,000 for park improvements in Bay City, $970,000 for a job training center in Saginaw, $600,000 for housing, and $200,000 for Michigan State University. Texas Democrat Jim Chapman, a relatively junior member, was only allowed $800,000 for "economic revitalization" in Marshall, Texas. Bill
Green, a more senior New York Republican, took $1,025,000 for housing.
Like at a poker game, the money is divided up with a minimum of comment. The conversations at these meetings are straightforward; they are of money and power, and the (usually) men who wield them. Traxler's projects get taken care of. So do Bill Green's. There is no partisan talk of Democrat or Republican. Appropriations and its power have created a third party in the House: the party of money.
Appropriations meant prestige, too. Eight days after winning the seat, Congressman Coleman attended a committee meeting on arms control at the White House with President Reagan, Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger, Secretary of State George Shultz, and National Security Advisor Robert McFarlane. Coleman was now running with a crowd he had previously only been able to watch on television, Strangely, though, he remained consciously aloof except for his recognition of the political benefits. Afterwards, he expressed no sense of history, showed no heightened feelings of gravitas toward great issues and world crises; the glaze-eye of power told him that all this and more was owed him.
The immediate payoff was local. As Coleman would tell the press later in the year, "You're where the funds are and that's how you have an impact on government. You can look out for issues you care about. . . . " Coleman won the seat on January 22. On February 5, he was already promising to get $31.05 million in military construction funds for Fort Bliss, his local military base. That a congressman who had been on the Appropriations Committee for fifteen days could confidently promise $31.05 million-among other thingsshowed how easlily the committee was able to produce the big money. In 1791, Congress's first appropriations bill was $639,000 for nonmilitary salaries, financial obligations of the government, and pensions of military invalids. A committee member today can simply write that amount into the report that accompanies any particular bill, frequently without a vote. Larger amounts are sometimes fought over, but the Favor Factory wins in the end; even Defense Secretary Richard Cheney lost a $1.3 billion scuffle with
New York Democrat Bob Mrazek over twenty-four additional F-14 navy fighteriets. Mrazek, who represents Long Island communities that depend on the contract, wanted the money. Cheney opposed it. Mrazek won. A seat on the committee is recognized as such a special prize that in the spring of 1991, the strongest immediate public objection to Oregon Democrat Les AuCoin's announcement that he would run for the U.S. Senate was the anticipated financial loss to the state of his leaving the Appropriations Committee.
Coleman, by the way, got his $31.05 million. As he would crack in 1990, "When I come back in a second life, I'm going to be a contractor. Anyone who makes $30 million for putting up bricks is doing okay, and the government will spend it all because they don't know any better. "
While Congressman Coleman would plot and vote with the rest of the Democrats, his new power on the Appropriations Committee gave him the strength to define himself by something other than partisan warfare. The symbols wielded by the committee revealed this change in status. Instead of the pedestrian hearing rooms of the Government Operations and Armed Services Committee, located in the far-off House Office buildings, the Appropriations Committee itself was located in the Capitol Building. Ironically, the members sat in between the "Rule ofjustice" depicted on the north wall of the meeting room and the "Rule of Tyranny" on the south wall; the committee frequently found itself in a similar position on issues. Elsewhere, opulent frescoes depicted the members' own creation myth of the common citizen called to public service: Cincinnatus leaving his plow, Israel Putnam doing the same thing two thousand years later.
The Appropriations Committee's public meetings are as polite as National Football League linemen. In 1989, while considering a grant of $9 million to Violetta Chamorro during the Nicaraguan elections, Foreign Operations Subcommittee Chairman David Obey did not bother to bring up the legislation before the subcommittee, but bumped it cavalierly to the full committee. Obey Imperiously demanded immediate approval from subcommittee members, which included Congressman Coleman.106 HILL RAT
Our staff director, Paul Rogers, was standing at my desk when he heard the news.
"I'm opposed to that," he proclaimed tartly. "This office is opposed to any form of intervention in Nicaragua under any circumstances." The statement was incorrect; the congressman had voted in 1985 for nonmilitary aid to the contras. But Rogers had not informed Congressman Coleman of his decision. Our staff proceeded to communicate Coleman's opposition to the outside, a decision made by the summary decree of a nonelected Hill rat. Such decisions could only be appealed at great peril; under our office's organization structure, Rogers stood between the congressman and the rest of the world. 6
As it happened, Congressman Obey's deal faced opposition in the Foreign Operations Subcommittee itself by real Members. "That's bullshit," snapped Illinois Democrat Richard Durbin the next day. Durbin was right. Giving $9 million to Violetta Chamorro would be a foreign policy decision of major importance. Durbin wanted his piece of the action.
Obey argued that the leadership had cut a deal with the White House as part of the "big picture. " You can do your amendment there, Obey said, but not here. That's still bullshit, Durbin persisted and offered an amendment to eliminate $8.6 million of the $9 million. Coleman, unaware that everyone thought he was opposed to it because of Paul Rogers's decision, ended up voting for Durbin's proposal. After the amendment was defeated, Durbin swore he would offer it on the floor. Obey began to mutter veiled threats, and Coleman, still clueless, left the room.
In the spring of 1985, while Republican walkouts and guerrilla tactics were grinding the business of the House to a halt over a disputed special election in Indiana, Congressman Coleman found out about Rep. Dave McCurdy's upcoming junket to Brazil and Argentina and scrambled to join it. His statement-drafted in case a nosy reporter asked-said he had been "selected" to represent the Appropriations Committee on the House Intelligence Committee's "fact-finding tour of Brazil and Argentina." McCurdy's press re
lease was even loftier: "The future of these countries has become critical to the U. S. We cannot afford to take their fate lightly. 7 The official itinerary for May 26, the day after the congressional delegation (Codel) arrived in Rio de Janeiro, read: "Sunday. Entire day at leisure. Hans Stern, jeweler, will open his shop [at] Copacabana 4-6 PM. especially for the Codel. Consulate will provide transportation."8
Monday, May 27, featured four hours of briefings scheduled at the American consulate before flying to Brasilia, the country's capitol, for a reception and dinner. The congressional delegation left for Buenos Aires the next morning without meeting with any Brazilian leaders, except those who happened to be at the reception and dinner. Similar scheduling demands were imposed during the remaining two days in Buenos Aires. Paul Rogers gave me a threeword order about how much to tell the press: "Nothing in advance. "
Or, as Rep. Stephen Solarz's press secretary would claim to the press with unwitting irony in response to a 1989 Ralph Nader report documenting $13 million on congressional travel, "[Tjhe truly newsworthy story is not those who travel, but those who don't. "9
Unfortunately, the machinery of government eventually intrudes on the fun. All the individual projects and deals add up to the budget, making Budget Day a Capitol Hill favorite. For starters, the White House always gets the jump on Congress by briefing reporters over the previous weekend and by selective leaks that put the president's request in the best possible light.
That's okay, though, because Congress has some real thorough budget-bashers up here and we always get the last word anyway.
Most congressional offices, ours included, take a first crack at the massive document with an eye toward local impact, unless you're the Speaker or Majority Leader Richard Gephardt, who will invariably intone that the budget presents "tough choices for all Americans," or a similar cliche. For my congressional office, it was border-related activities: the Immigration Service, Customs Service, our military base, and so on. It beats having to read the whole108 HILL RAT
document, which very few staffers and almost no members do' Most staffers, in fact, just read the newspaper headlines and see what happens when the Budget Committee takes a whack at it.
Unlike mornings of military invasions, Budget Day provides members with the unparalleled opportunity to really tee off on the White House. The president has to take the national perspective, which is not always the local one, even for Republicans. Someone, somewhere, is going to get cut. And since the cry of the 1980s was gimme gimme gimme, congressional offices scored hits in the press by finding that one item in the budget to criticize.
Watch the newspapers carefully the next time a president unveils his budget proposals. Two kinds of congressional persona will appear. The current chair of the Budget Committee will offer either a technical comment or a carefully crafted syllogism, followed by the ever-present Richard Gephardt, who after consulting his polls and wizards will say something predictably tiresome about hard times and tough choices. Beneath the big shots, the members provide a local angle-and no one ever seems to stop to ask if cuts are good.
Imagine you're on the Hill on Budget Day morning. Every "policy wonk" is reeling from overload caused by toxic exposure to budget numbers. Legislative alchemists all over the Hill are scrounging through the document, plugging numbers into computers, running analyses and crossanalyses. And press secretaries? We're trying to decide whether to have the roast beef sub or Chinese carryout for lunch. Legislative directors are paid to understand complicated things. Press secretaries are paid to understand complicated people. Give me three things from the budget that I can use and I'll gin up enough quotes to keep us in the news until Friday.
The most accurate description of the process by which the nation's finances are decided is "clusterfuck, " as one Hill rat termed it succinctly. A witches'brew involving every committee in the House of Representatives, it is designed to protect and extend the maximum political turf possible for the members. The authority to spend money in the annual "clusterfuck" is separated by law from the actual act of spending it, and both are removed from the appropriations thereof
On paper, the process works like this. The president submits his budget to Congress early in the year, and usually in January. It is immediately tossed into a computerized Cuisinart at the Congressional Budget Office, which recalculates everything and always comes up with different numbers because it uses different economic assumptions.
Then everyone shrieks and moans throughout February and March as the House and Senate Budget Committees stage hearings. These committees pass budget bills, which then go to the floors of the House and Senate. Conference committees work out the differences by April 15. The budget committees then tell the tax-writing committees how much money needs to be raised and the other committees how much can be spent.
The other committees, known as "authorizing committees, agree among themselves how much money can be spent and for what purpose. Their decisions go to the floor, to conference committee, and then to the president for signature. In August, economic forecasts are revised because changes in the economy may require more or less spending and taxes.
In practice, however, the Appropriations Committee ignores everyone else involved in the process. If we don't like the caps from the budget committee, we take care of business in supplemental appropriations bills. The very first spending bill passed under the Gramm-Rudman deficit reduction process, for example, was the Fiscal Year 1986 supplemental appropriations bill that contained $55.6 million in defense projects at universities in the districts of committee members. "We start," Congressman Coleman told a political scientist in 1990, "from the standpoint that the authorizing committees are not going to get theJob done, so we have to run the country." Since we have the money, the reformers always lose. "I
feel like a hungry dog, " an Appropriations member once said, hefting the four-pound budget document with both hands, "and this sumbitch is smeared with meat."
The committee may giveth, but it can also taketh away. "Time to get a new black marking pen," an Appropriations staffer once told me after a floor vote.110 HILL RAT
I chuckled. What my friend meant was this: any member who votes against an appropriations bill on the House floor stands to lose every project in the bill earmarked for his or her district. Hill rats match projects with congressional districts, and then call up the roll call vote on the bill from House Information Systems on their computers. My friend gleefully went about his task, striking out millions of dollars worth of projects with each flourish of his pen. Most of them were Republicans who wanted to cut the budget and save part for their own district. I did not feel sorry for them. You wanna play, you gotta pay. Go get 'em, buddy.
Supplemental appropriations bills, called "supplementals," are especially engaging because they are almost always fought out in public on the House floor.
The House of Representatives opens for business with all the grace of a losing minor league baseball team taking batting practice. Complaints and languor fill the air. Members hang around the political batting cage milling about with pages, aides, other members, and other creatures trying to figure out what's going on and when. When the first major league prospect emerges from the Democratic Cloakroom, such as the Majority Leader or Majority Whip, the crowd's egos begin to bloat. Republicans have little power, so no one watches the door to their cloakroom. And when the Speaker himself enters the chamber, a courtier rushes up and inserts a large pole topped by a bronzed eagle into a holder. The Mace of the House has been implanted-let the games begin!The One Minutes are about to start.
In a One Minute the right honorable representatives receive, literally and exactly, one minute on C-SPAN to say anything whatsoever.10 On good days, the one minutes are as polite as sixth-grade dirt clod fights at recess. The Republicans and Democrats take turns, one after another, and when one party is feeling particularly mischievous, it organizes the One Minutes into sustained attacks upon the other, complete with graphs, charts, shocking photographs, and other props. Members treat the Wars of the One Minutes with the seriousness of a nuclear targeting strategist and the
skill of a fraternity prankster. Preppie-looking staffers breathlessl) man the telephones in the hours preceding the fray, rounding ul speakers, distributing talking points, and frantically attempting to convince the press that the fate of the Western world will be determined by their own member's One Minute.
With speeches such as "Protect His Mental Faculties by Flattening His Skull" and "He Who Has the Wits Metes Out the Whacks,' the only thing that gets generated is bad blood ill the way around. In fact, the One Minutes do little other than exacerbating a sense o panic in the general public over the prospect of the House being in session and gearing up to do things that might actually affect the course of the nation.
That's a terrifying prospect to most people, myself included. "When the House is in session, the smart money puts one hand on their wallet and the other on their gun," my grandfather once told me in his I-mean-it tone of voice.
"He's right," a fellow Hill rat said very matter-of-factly after I had conveyed this comment. "This place is completely out of control. " But she also reminded me that if the leadership did not allow One Minutes, the members would have no outlet for their frustrations and would "say all kinds of wild shit during real debate. " After all, my friend reasoned, "when you take 435 of the most selfimportant and egotistical people in the nation and cram them into three office buildings with too much to do and not enough time, you get a situation not unlike a box full of caged gerbils on amphetamines, which is not something to be ignored when you consider the potential for mischief around here. "
The mischief factor was especially high early in the summer of 1990 when the House considered an additional spending bill for Fiscal Year 1990, which would end on September 30.
Democrats wanted to talk about funding the war on drugs, Republicans wanted to repeal something called Section 89, and someone or other wanted to bring up China, but the leadership aides talked him out of it. Rep. Roy Rowland of Georgia decried crack cocaine, stating that " . . . within a matter of 8 or 10 seconds the individual is propelled into a feeling of pleasure that is beyond all112 HILL RAT
human experience," prompting Rep. Ben Jones, also of Georgia, to observe that "we are clearly losing the war on drugs."
The final One-Minute hit was by New York Republican Gerald Solomon, who reminded members that the veterans lobby would be all over them if they did not vote for the "clean" veterans supplemental later that day. 11
Better fill you in about supplementals. Once the budget has been set and funds authorized and money appropriated, the new fiscal year kicks in, and everyone immediately scurries about trying to find ways to get around the spending caps for their favorite programs. One neat trick is deliberately to underfund something that has to be funded as, for example, veterans hospitals. This gives you breathing room to fit in less politically potent programs. After the start of the fiscal year, warnings start coming in from, say, veterans hospitals about to close down, which activates the veterans lobby. They weigh in with their political muscle, and lo and behold, before long that sneaky little creature known as a supplemental appropriations bill begins to start wiggling its whiskers out from under its rock.
Supplementals start out with worthwhile items, but an out-ofcontrol election-year supplemental rampages like a tornado, as members of the Appropriations Committee beef up the sucker like tomorrow will never come. (And in an election year, it might not.)
So your regular old supplemental that started out nice and low at $50 million or so comes waddling out of the Appropriations Committee at three or four billion, burping and slopping onto the floor and daring anyone to vote against it. In the media-driven political atmosphere of the 1980s, members lived in fear they might have to t4 explain." "When you're explaining, you're losing," is Congressman Coleman's favorite expression. He is correct. All the voters know is what the member's opponent tells them: HE VOTED AGAINST OLD PEOPLE, or whatever.
After the One Minutes, the Acting Rules Committee chairman called up the rule for the "Dire Emergency" Supplemental Appropriations Bill. If the rule passes, the supplemental will be brought up for two hours of debate with no amendments permitted. Rules
are important. The bitterest debates in the House occur not over which way to vote, but over which votes will be allowed and how. It is like turning over a street fight to a debating society to decide who can throw what punches, how often, and when.
In essence, the Rules Committee controls which ideas will or will not be discussed. It is portrayed to the public as a mechanistic, procedural arena, but it is nothing of the kind. As former Majority Whip Tony Coelho once said, give me process and the other guy substance, and I'll win every time. 12
While House rules allow members to vote to waive or suspend any of the rules, four main kinds are usually employed. An open rule allows unlimited amendments, which turns the House into a free-for-all. A modified open rule allows a reasonable number of amendments. A closed rule allows no amendments. And what Hill rats call a wackc, rule ... well, a wacko rule will, for the sake of example, allow one motion to recommit but only if offered after the Smith amendment to perfect theJones substitute, followed by three additional amendments that may be offered in the form of a substitute or separately, in which case the "King of the Hill" procedure is adopted, meaning that the last one that passes is the one that sticks even though the other ones might have been adopted previ ... 13You see what I mean.
Congressman Solomon, a former Marine who served both in Korea and the House Veterans Affairs Committee, started to complain that veterans were being held hostage by the rest of the supplemental. "The veterans package is being used as the engine to drive this monstrosity through the Congress," he exclaimed. (Veterans issues are political heavyweights, and Members go to great lengths to identify with them. After the Persian Gulf War, Rep. Larry Hopkins (R-KY) changed his official biography from "U.S. Marine Corps, 1954-1956" to "served in the Marines in Korea." Unfortunately, he did no such thing, something thoughtfully pointed out repeatedly by his opponent in the gubernatorial primary. Hopkins's explanation was that military service from June 27, 1950, to January 31, 1955, is considered the Korean conflict for the 114 HILL RAT
purpose of calculating benefits and pensions, and that was good enough for him.) "The budget process is still being abused," Solomon continued. "Legislative language is still being placed in appropriations bills, and Republicans are still being denied their rights. Defeat this porker of a supplemental!"
Democrats in the front aisles began to make muffled pig noises. Rep. Barney Frank rose to underscore Republican hypocrisy: sometimes they like gag rules and sometimes they don't. The Republicans were outraged. Quoting a member's own words right back at him was an egregious breach of House tradition. Only your campaign opponent is supposed to do that.
Not to be outdone, Republican leader Robert Michel thundered, "This two-headed malodorous swamp monster that the Rules Committee deposited on the floorjust yesterday ... I am reminded of the chant of the carnival barker about the amazing attraction inside the tent: Ladies and gentlemen, it walks, it talks, it chews knives and forks. Somebody let this one out of the tent and if we do not send it back it is going to chew up whatever small shreds of reputation we have."
Frank responded by asking Michel if he paid twenty-five cents to peep under the tent: "Did he see the Republican bearded lady?"
Michel then called the supplemental a "procedural mutant. " "The $700 million in the bill is the amount the Democratic leadership is willing to pay for a single vote on the floor of this house to build up a partisan record against incumbents in next year's election."
"Bet your ass," said a legislative staff member standing next to me as we watched the fight on television.
"Is that all we added?" another one asked with a chuckle. "There must be some mistake-I thought I put more in."
When the Budget Committee's commercial was over, Rep. Robert Walker (R-PA) was at the lectern. Some Hill rats call him the Headless Horseman because he resembles Ichabod Crane. He flaps and flails his arms when he gets excited, which is most of the time."Cleared for takeoff," somebody said.
The rule passed, 217 to 203, which is a lot closer than most rule votes because they are supposed to be party line votes. So the
Pope- Appropriations Committee Chairmanjamie Whitten, hea of the College of Cardinals, as the committee is called-stood u and pulled a slick trick. He offered a "committee leadershi amendment "-whatever that meant-to cut a billion or so from th supplemental, which gave the members the opportunity to Vot Against Government Spending and still support the supplemental
Solomon looked like he was involuntarily passing a kidney ston but Whitten's ploy worked. By giving members the chance to cut meaningless billion dollars from a supplemental that was larded t the breaking point to begin with, he had provided all the politica cover necessary to get thejob done.
Right before final passage, Republican John Kyl from Arizona who was not on the Appropriations Commmittee, said in exaspera tion, ". . . frankly, I do not have the foggiest notion why we eve vote on budgets around here. . . . "The Appropriations seat in 1985 provided Coleman a good opportunity to reinforce his congressional persona. As a fitting tribute to his newest elevation, we issued a video release featuring Coleman uttering one of the more amazing political statements of our time "In 37 out of the last 40 years, the committee has acted as a brake on federal spending. "
[The FY 1991 supplemental may have been even better: between the House and the Senate, forty HUD projects were tacked on at the request of specific members to the tune of roughly $30 million. While Congress was bashing HUD Secretary Samuel Pierce over alleged influence peddling, Rep. Bob Traxler (D-MI), a member of the College of Cardinals, snagged $1.59 million for housing and waterfront improvements in Saginaw, Michigan; Democratic Sen. Patrick Leahy teamed up with James Jeffords, his Republican counterpart from Vermont, to get $1.2 million to renovate apartments; two Pennsylvania members, Thomas Foglietta (D) and Lawrence Coughlin (R), hit theiackpot at $3 million for a "ground subsidence program" in Philadelphia, and so on. 14
Unperturbed and unblinking, the Democratic National Committee blasted the Reagan administration for "HUD SCAM," which the DNC termed "Republican moneygrabbers who scammed the116 HILL RAT
American public ... while lining their pockets, protecting their friends, and paying off cronies."
Onjuly 13, 1990, members of the Favor Factory actually sang the chorus of "The Battle Hymn of the Republic" as they passed the $170 billion Labor-Health and Human Services appropriations bill. 15]
Back in March of 1985, the ugly head of the NIX missile rose once again, and pressure mounted on Coleman, who because of previous flip-flopping was seen as a swing vote. As with El Salvador, he was unable to extricate himself from the webs of partisanship, and he dithered. 16 Our agony came not from conscience, but rather of politics-which vote would produce the least political pain. We spent our time frantically tallying up telephone calls from the district-six in favor of the missile and sixteen against-and in the mail, which was overwhelmingly in favor.
Besides, the MX debate was an unreal one. Any newspaper reader knew that there was not one chance in a hundred that those missiles would ever be caught in their -silos, which made the entire debate over its basing mode preposterous. Like its Trident submarine-based conterpart, the D-5 missile, it is a first-strike missile. Liberals like Oregon's Les AuCom were muttering that President Reagan had changed the country's nuclear war-fighting blueprint, the Single Integrated Operational Plan, or SIOP, to add a first-strike option, but the plain fact was that every SIOP since Eisenhower had had it, includingjimmy Carter's. The real problem was on the Soviet side: their six hundred new missiles were heavier and more accurate, enough posssibly to threaten our Minuteman missiles, which raised the additional possibility of a first strike on their part. Plus Soviet air and antimissile defenses were improving, which in turn reduced U.S. estimates of how many MIRVed Minuteman warheads would make it through (the NIX reentry vehicles and warheads can be zipped around like on a video game).Since the federal deficit had been in the news recently, Congress
[U.S. arms control negotiator hastily brought back from Geneva to lobby for the MX], but they were the same arguments I heard from the President. I am convinced that we can't afford it. "17 At least this time Coleman was consistent. 18
Despite these glitches fuzzing his image, Appropriations provided an immediate and stabilizing payback: in the third week of April, we stuck in thirty new U.S. Customs inspectors for the El Paso district. The press coverage was great, and the MX forgotten.
Who cares about frying the world when you can bring home the bacon?
We learned another lesson about Appropriations. The beauty of the House-and why Budget Day can be so much fun-is because the institution really only has to pass one bill per year, a continuing resolution for spending that rolls all thirteen appropriations bins into it. Usually, the thirteen spending bills are dealt with separately, but even thirteen is a far cry from the thousands that are introduced every year.
Technically speaking, of course, no explicit constitutional requirement exists to pass anything. Members are perfectly free to run amok with no legal inhibitions whatsoever (which is what most people suspect they do anyway). On the other hand, if they do not pass the appropriations bills, they will not get paid, so you can count on at least the Legislative Branch Appropriations bill making it through one way or the other.
A second type of bill is called "yo momma. " These measures are legislative actions not necessarily required by law, but if they are not acted on, as one legislative aide termed it, "you're a chickenshit." Most "yo mommas" are resolutions of approval or disapproval of actions taken by the White House, such as high-tech arms sales to the Middle East.The next group of bills fall in the category of "ought to be passed but may or may not be," such as reauthorizations of major bills like the Clean Air Act, the highway bill, and other regulatory legislation.
House of Lords, the chairman of the major committees such asJohn Dingell at Energy and Commerce or Danny Rostenkowski at Ways and Means. If their bills don't make it, yours never will. Ever.
The fifth kind could be called "millions of people want this one passed, " something which, of course, guarantees nothing of the sort. Immigration control or Pentagon procurement reform are good examples. These bills frequently take years to get action. Finally, the last category, which includes everything else, is known as snowballs, as in "not a snowball's chance in hell of passing."
An earthquake had struck Mexico City and thousands of families in El Paso were concerned for the safety of relatives and friends. Paul Rogers decided that the congressional office would serve as a clearinghouse for information, which meant we would give people the same telephone numbers that were being shown on television, only now the congressman could be on television, too.
The mission was worthwhile, and our stated goals laudable. Our hidden intent, however, was somewhat darker. At the time, we had been lurching around issues-wise with no clear-cut entry into Perceptionland except the usual trumpeting of Appropriations projects.
The Mexico City earthquake changed all that. We had an issue, but like most things on the Hill, it quickly turned into a quest for personal credit. In a matter of hours, we churned out a press release with this headline, "COLEMAN LEADS CONGRESSIONAL EFFORTS FOR MEXICO DISASTER RELIEF..."19 Unfortunately, the story developed in a direction that did not include continuous adulation of the congressman, who in fact had not been in the office that entire weekend.
We met on the morning of the 24th. "Disaster relief," Rogers announced. "What needs to be done? How to position ourselves? Where should he be now? Can we resurrect Coleman into the lead somehow?" Our Mexico specialist made the comment that it would depend on how much effort the congressman wanted to invest (which could start by having him show up for work). One of Paul
Rogers's main tasks was to keep up the fiction, even internally, that Coleman was still an active, driving force in the House. It was not an easy one, but he undertook this mission with professional relish.
This episode also revealed how in a matter of nine short months, a congressman had quickly come to rely on an Appropriations Committee-related definition of his office, which to him meant it was on automatic pilot. Nature had struck with terrible ferocity. Thousands of people were dead. Yet the main concern was political ambulance-chasing, "resurrecting Coleman into the lead" of newspaper and television stories on the disaster. The visceral urge for self-renewal through publicity was too strong to overcome.
The seduction of the Appropriations Committee was not the only change underway. Coleman seemed to be withdrawing from the day-to-day operation of the office. His public image was in professional hands and his legislative agenda had been reduced to grabbing federal projects for the district. Paul Rogers, under enormous stress, tried to fill the void. One staffer commented on his management style, "Do you know how much thinner I'm getting from having a piece of my ass chewed out every day?" By now, Rogers was becoming one of the most publicly controversial Hill rats on the Hill; Texas newspapers ran stories at the end of the year that contained harsh criticism of his role as Coleman's "gatekeeper. "20
Questions came to me, and came again. But no answers materialized. What in the world is going on here? I would wonder in despair. The congressman has turned into a phantom and the operation was veering out of control. By all accounts, the year was ending on a sour, if not despondent, political note. But I was nevertheless personally elated. I was looking forward to something no political hack could diminish: becoming a first-time father.