WASHINGTON — Rep. Norm Dicks, D-Wash., is in line to become chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, one of the most powerful posts on Capitol Hill with direct control over more than a third of all federal spending — nearly $1.4 trillion annually.
If Democrats retain control of the House of Representatives after November's midterm elections, Dicks would succeed the current chairman, Rep. David Obey, D-Wis., who announced his retirement Wednesday.
Less than two months ago, Dicks became chairman of the Appropriations Committee's defense subcommittee, a chairmanship he will retain even if he heads the full committee.
"I am not going to take anything for granted," Dicks said of replacing Obey.
Dicks would take over in the next Congress, which starts in January if he is named to the chairmanship.
But there are a lot of ifs, including whether the Democrats will remain in control of the House of Representatives after the November mid-term elections.
"I am not chairman of anything unless we win the election," said Dicks, who is no stranger to the fickleness of elections. In 1994, he was in line to become chairman of the House Intelligence Committee only to see the Republicans win the House majority.
With Obey's decision not to seek re-election, Dicks becomes the senior Democrat on the full Appropriations Committee. But before becoming chairman, he would need the support of his Democratic committee colleagues, the Democratic Policy and Steering Committee and the full Democratic caucus. Dicks has previously received essential support from House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. He could be challenged by a committee member with less seniority.
Dicks has been in Congress for 17 terms. He was named to the Appropriations Committee in his first year, a rarity for a freshman. But the late House Speaker Tip O'Neil was lobbied by the late Washington Democratic Sens. Henry Jackson and Warren Magnuson and the late Sen. Ted Kennedy, D-Mass.
The committee had jurisdiction over the purse strings for every government agency, from Defense and Homeland Security to Interior, Transportation, Education, Agriculture and Health and Human Services.
The committee sets what is called discretionary spending, which is everything but entitlement programs like Social Security and Medicare. Discretionary spending is usually negotiated between Congress and the White House.
If he becomes chairman, Dicks will face a tight budget environment as Democrats and Republicans have signaled it's time to rein in spending and reduce the federal deficit.
"Spending will be a problem," he said.
Dicks would also step into the thick of the fight over earmarks. Dicks has supported previous earmark reforms but insists the Constitution directly granted Congress and not the White House the authority over federal spending.
The congressman said he was excited about the possibility of taking over the chairmanship and would continue to help his district and Washington state as a whole.
"We will do the job we have always done and help our area as much as possible," he said.
The congressman said his top priority would be getting people back to work.
Dicks' Democratic colleagues from Washington said that if Dicks becomes chairman it would be a boost for the state.
Rep. Rick Larsen, D-Wash., said Dicks' familiarity with the state means he understands local needs.
"He knows what key investments we can make to grow Washington's economy, create jobs for our neighbors, and deliver much-needed resources to our local schools, law enforcement agencies and medical centers," Larsen said.
Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., said it would be "great news" for the state and the region if Dicks takes over the chairmanship.
"Norm will bring the Northwest perspective to a key leadership position," Cantwell said.