Texas Republican Kay Granger — best-known in Washington for the big money she sends home to her Fort Worth district — wants a bigger role writing the budget for a party of fiscal hawks.
Thanks to her current leadership assignment, doling out defense funds to her colleagues’ districts, she’s on the shortlist for the position, even as the party continues to shift right.
Granger is one of the longest-serving lawmakers from her state, and one of the only high-ranking Texans who has yet to chair a full committee on Capitol Hill.
While many colleagues who arrived after her are heading for the exits next year, Granger, 75, is gearing up for a bigger role, when current Appropriations Chairman Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen, R-N.J., retires this fall.
“There’s a reason why a lot of people here call her the Titanium Texan,” said Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, R-Fla., a senior member of the budget-writing panel Granger hopes to lead. “She is one of the most admired and respected people, and among some circles, the most feared.”
Granger faces competition from Rep. Robert Aderholt, R-Ala., who was first elected the same year as her, but joined the committee before her and ranks ahead of her in seniority. Reps. Mike Simpson, R-Idaho, Tom Cole, R-Okla., and Tom Graves, R-Ga., are also eyeing the seat, and rank behind Aderholt and Granger.
Chairmanships are decided by a committee of the party's own lawmakers, chosen after the elections in the fall.
Since Congress retired the practice of earmarks, the Appropriations Committee is one of the last places lawmakers can direct money toward pet projects — building loyalty for such a contest.
As chair of the panel within that committee that chooses which defense projects get funding from Congress, Granger has the unique power to direct money to colleagues’ districts — for a cause (defense) that even the toughest fiscal hawks still support.
“It’s a hugely powerful position because there’s all kinds of opportunity there to go out and accrue political favors,” said Dan Grazier, a Military Fellow at the Project On Government Oversight.
This month Granger shepherded a massive $675 billion defense bill through the House, increasing the money Congress spends for military personnel, equipment and training. The party’s current House leaders held its passage up as a political victory, and praised Granger in a press gathering on Capitol Hill earlier this month.
Speaking to reporters before the bill's passage, Granger said her staff sorted through 6,600 requests from her fellow lawmakers for projects in their districts.
“We tried to meet those needs in every way possible … looking at job base as well as military strength,” said Granger, who is in her second year heading the House panel on defense appropriations.
Government watchdog groups detest that process for funding military projects, saying it encourages lawmakers to treat defense projects as jobs programs in their districts, rather than funding the best program for equipping the military.
“Having Kay Granger, who has the largest defense acquisitions project in history in her district, in this position is an obvious example of what is wrong with this entire process,” said Grazier, the military fellow.
Granger's final product includes plenty of money for projects in her district: $9.4 billion for new Lockheed Martin F-35 airplanes, which are assembled in Fort Worth. It also included $1.1 million for V-22 Ospreys, made by Fort Worth’s Bell Helicopter.
Even among the GOP’s fiercest fiscal hawks, however, the boost to defense spending is considered a political victory.
“The best part of [the 2018 government funding bill] is that included the single biggest rebuilding of our military since Ronald Reagan,” Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, told Republicans in Waco last week — despite voting against the final package over other concerns.
Budget writers typically don't align with the rest of the GOP in its desire to slash government spending.
In the heyday of congressional earmarks, Granger was among her party’s top requesters, asking for roughly $185,000 between 2008 and 2011, according to a database compiled by the watchdog group Tax Payers for Commonsense. Aderholt requested roughly $225,000 in earmarks during the same span.
Granger's bigger challenge ascending the leadership ladder in a conservatively led conference could come instead from her reluctance to join Capitol Hill's conservative clubs — something Aderholt alluded to in an interview with the Star-Telegram this month.
“Realistically [Republicans] could lose a handful of seats [in 2018], and if we do, it’s going to be in the more moderate areas,” said Aderholt, R-Ala., who is a member of the Tea Party Caucus.
Without mentioning Granger specifically, Aderholt pitched himself as being in lock-step with the right on “moral issues, social issues [and] economic issues.”
“I think that the conference wants to see a conservative … and even more so in the next Congress,” he told the Star-Telegram.
Granger's office declined to comment for this story.
Granger served as a non-partisan mayor of Fort Worth before running for Congress, but maintains good relationships with leaders in the conservative movement.
“Her door has always been open to me, even when I was a freshman,” Rep. Mark Meadows, R-N.C., chair of the conservative House Freedom Caucus, told the Star-Telegram in an interview.
“I think she’s extremely conservative,” added Meadows, who noted “the most conservative members don’t normally serve on appropriations.”
In the past year, she's worked to shore up her conservative credentials without that designation — signing onto an immigration proposal crafted by hardliners and championing a rare budget move that other moderate GOP budget-writers rejected.