House Democrats' top appropriator adjusts to new realities

McClatchy NewspapersJanuary 23, 2011 

WASHINGTON — One of the nation's longest-serving members of Congress, Rep. Norm Dicks, D-Wash., is adjusting to his new life with Republicans in control of the House of Representatives.

But as the top Democrat on Appropriations, which will dole out roughly $1 trillion this year, Dicks will still carry plenty of clout and have lots to say on government spending. He'll be the point man in defending Democratic priorities, including funding for health care, housing, rural development, education and Pell grants for college students.

Dicks already is on board with calls for more austere spending, and he's even talking about earmarks in the past tense, at least for now. Dicks, who turned 70 last month and is beginning his 18th term, acknowledges that it will be tougher to deliver goodies for his Washington state 6th congressional district.

"I may have done it," he said in an interview in his office on Capitol Hill last week. "I've been here 34 years. I may have done the best I can."

As House Republicans begin cutting in an attempt to get spending back to 2008 levels, Dicks said he believes the GOP is "going to find it's a little harder to do than the campaign rhetoric." He said the Republicans' goal would translate to $85 billion in cuts, adding: "That would mean big cuts in all kinds of programs."

Rather than cutting discretionary spending on popular domestic programs, Dicks said, Congress should focus on changing the tax code or dealing with entitlement programs such as Medicare and Social Security, going "where the real money is." He said the government must cut back on spending, but not prematurely.

"If you do it prematurely, you're going to hurt the economy, you're going to hurt job creation, and you're going to have a prolonged period of unacceptably high unemployment," he said. "This is really Keynesian economics. ... You want to make sure the medicine you're serving up is going to cure the patient, not kill the patient."

Dicks said his focus in the new Congress will be on jobs. When he goes to the House floor Tuesday night to watch President Barack Obama deliver his State of the Union speech, Dicks said he'll be most eager to hear how the White House is planning to get more Americans back to work.

Dicks has a more immediate concern over jobs in his home state: He's awaiting next month's expected awarding of a $35 billion Air Force tanker project, which will go to either Boeing or to a European company. Dicks, who last week was also officially named as ranking Democrat on the Appropriations Committee's defense subcommittee, is counting on the project to deliver thousands of new jobs to Washington state.

"This is going to be very negative in the country if Boeing doesn't wind up with this contract," Dicks said. "People are going to be very angry about it. ... I just hope they win."

Dicks is pledging to work with the Republicans and expressed hope that bipartisanship will prevail on the committee, putting an end to the constant delays in getting major spending bills passed. He said he's ready to do his part by striving to be "a voice of moderation."

"I'm not going to be an obstructionist," Dicks said.

Dicks said he expects House Republicans to push for proposals "that will never become law," such as last week's vote to repeal the national health care law. At some point, he said, he wants Republicans to "move beyond these political gestures on their part and get down to the substance of what we need to do, and that's the appropriations process."

Citing an ABC News/Washington Post poll from last week that found 82 percent of Americans believe the political discourse in the nation is too negative, Dicks said it's time for members of Congress to tone down the level of rhetoric. He said he's hopeful that debate will be more civil in the aftermath of this month's shooting of Arizona Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, whom he called "a star" among House Democrats.

"Especially with this tea party crowd coming on board, I hope people realize that we have to work together," Dicks said. "We can't condemn each other every single day. We've got to cooperate."

Dicks said he'd been a big supporter of earmarks for his entire career, contending that Congress has a constitutional right to fund local projects. But with the GOP calling the shots, he said, Democrats have no choice but to do without them.

"You can't do it unless the majority party says you can do it," he said. "I'm not objecting to that this year, for a year or so. We do need to show some restraint."

Steve Ellis, vice president of Taxpayers for Common Sense, said lawmakers survived without many earmarks until only 10 or 15 years ago, before their use exploded. And he said taxpayers will benefit from the new ban, even if some members of Congress don't like it.

"It may take a little bit of adjustment, but hopefully they'll take a lot more time to concentrate on the remainder of the budget and some of the big issues that are facing the country, rather than worrying about pursuing parochial projects for back home," Ellis said.

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