For Miami Rep. Diaz-Balart, important new post comes with tight-fisted mandate

Miami Republican Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart just got put in charge of one of the largest pots of money in Washington, but he’s not planning on any big spending sprees.

Instead, his job atop a transportation and housing appropriations subcommittee will be to be stingy.

“If there’s one issue that I’m going to be hounding on, it’s accountability,” he said Friday in an interview. “Accountability, accountability, accountability.

“Going after money that is misspent,” he added, “frees up money to actually do things that are necessary.”

Diaz-Balart, just elected to his seventh term in the U.S. House of Representatives, was named Thursday as chairman of a subcommittee of the powerful House Appropriations Committee. It’s a prestigious assignment on an important panel – a slot so powerful and sought-after that the 12 recipients are called “cardinals” in the Capitol.

It’s Diaz-Balart’s first chairmanship in Congress. He previously was the ranking member – the top Republican – on a subcommittee of a different committee during years Democrats controlled the House.

When Republicans took over the House, Diaz-Balart was in line to chair a Transportation and Infrastructure subcommittee but decided instead to jump to Appropriations, where he needed to work his way up again.

The job is pivotal because appropriations subcommittees are given authority over the 12 spending bills that form the basis of the federal budget. Diaz-Balart will run the Transportation, Housing and Urban Development, and Related Agencies Subcommittee. The current chairman, Tom Latham of Iowa, is retiring from Congress.

In the current Congress, Diaz-Balart has been on three Appropriations subcommittees, though not the transportation one he is about to chair. In addition to his chairmanship, he will likely serve on two other Appropriations subcommittees; those assignments have yet to be made.

Diaz-Balart has a long history with transportation issues. He served eight years on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee; his web site notes his strong support for transportation and says that throughout his tenure in Congress he helped deliver millions of dollars for the Interstate 75 widening project and Miami-Dade Transit.

And while he’ll now chair an appropriations subcommittee that could help him continue that support, Diaz-Balart said the job of an appropriator is to watch and monitor the money – not just dole it out. The people who chair appropriations committees also don’t have the power they used to, given curbs on earmarks and other pressures on the budget.

“I’m exceedingly grateful to Chairman (Hal) Rogers for giving me this opportunity,” Diaz-Balart said, referring to the Kentucky Republican in charge of the overall Appropriations Committee. “He’s given me an opportunity and he’s been very clear about what the charge is. And the charge is accountability of the people’s money.”

South Florida is a “growth area with great transportation needs,” Diaz-Balart said. “But when we look at the appropriations process, we have to always be conscious of the fact that we have a national transportation system.”

In that, there will be pressure. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx said this week in a USA Today article that he’d like a comprehensive, national highway funding bill next year rather than the stopgap measures that Congress has been recently relying on. Earlier this year, the Obama administration offered a four-year, $302 billion funding proposal.

The subcommittee has jurisdiction over the Department of Housing and Urban Development, which helps set federal housing policy; the Department of Transportation and all the road construction and transit programs it runs; and a smattering of other agencies such as the Federal Maritime Commission, the National Transportation Safety Board, the Neighborhood Reinvestment Corp., the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness, and the Washington, D.C., mass transit system.

The pressure in recent years has been to spend less, despite what the White House and many state and local officials say are pressing needs to fix crumbling roads and bridges and to help alleviate growing congestion. One flash point in recent years has been special infrastructure grants – originally part of the 2009 Obama stimulus program – that mayors and governors came to love but that House Republicans have tried to curtail.

“If you look at what has happened since the Republicans took control of the House, we have actually – in real numbers, and not Washington-talk, but in real numbers – we have actually cut spending,” he said. “Before that, the Appropriations Committee was a committee of just increased spending, and just throwing money and adding to the deficit.”