Appropriators Beware: Primaries Spell Defeat for Some

Spending committee membership might be hurting lawmakers' reelection bids.

Aug. 6, 2010 -- There has been much said about the anti-incumbent wave sweeping the country, but there may be something more interesting -- and unusual -- going on: an anti-appropriator wave.

From the dawn of recorded time, or at least since the late Sen. Robert Byrd steered money to his first West Virginia highway project, getting a seat on the House or Senate Appropriations Committees was a virtually assured ticket to reelection. You get on the committee, you steer millions, or, more likely, billions, of taxpayer dollars to projects back home and you get reelected.

But take a look at some of the most high-profile members of Congress who have already been kicked out by voters in primaries this year: Sen. Robert Bennett R-Utah, ; Sen. Arlen Specter D-Pa.; Rep. Alan Mollohan, D-W.V.; and Rep. Carolyn Cheeks Kilpatrick, D-Mich.

All senior members of the Appropriations Committee who were expert at playing the earmark game and had reputations for bringing home the bacon.

And there's more. Other top appropriators have been defeated in their efforts to seek higher office, including Rep. Todd Tiahrt, R-Kan., who lost his bid for the Republican Senate nomination; and Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas, who was trounced in the race against Texas Gov. Rick Perry.

Even the top appropriator of all -- House Appropriations Chairman David Obey -- is heading out the door. The Democrat was not defeated but decided against running in the face of a strong challenge from a former professional lumberjack and reality-TV star. Seriously.

Utah's Bennett was the first to go. A member of the Senate Appropriations Committee since 1999, he was ousted by Tea Party activists who said they hated government spending, even if the money was coming to Utah. Shortly after he was ousted, he said that being on the Appropriations Committee this year can actually be a strike against you.

"That's what they hated," he said. "It was, 'You are a part of the fiscal problem that we have if you're spending any money at all.'"

The Test of an Anecdotal Theme

There are special circumstances in each of the cases but appropriations is a common theme.

Specter has been on the Senate Appropriations Committee since 1989. He switched parties in 2009 to become a Democrat when it became clear he could not beat a conservative Republican whose top campaign issue was government spending.

The move backfired when he was ousted in the Democratic primary by Rep. Joe Sestak.

Mollohan was under an ethics cloud when he lost his Democratic primary for reelection in West Virginia. His ethics issues stemmed from his seat on the Appropriations Committee and allegations that he steered hundreds of millions of dollars toward businesses and nonprofits associated with his friends and associates in his more than 20 years on the committee.

Kilpatrick lost her bid for reelection in the Democratic primary in Michigan this week. That loss is mostly attributable to her son, disgraced former Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick. But Rep. Kilpatrick also sits on the Appropriations Committee.

Only two of the incumbents ousted so far this year were not on the Appropriations Committees. First-term Rep. Parker Griffith switched from Democrat to Republican in protest of the health care bill, which he opposed. But he was overwhelmingly defeated in the Republican primary.

Longtime Rep. Bob Inglis of South Carolina, who is not an appropriator, was overwhelmingly defeated too, but only after he criticized viewers of TV-host Glenn Beck's.

The anecdotal theme will be tested again next week when Sen. Lisa Murkowski faces the Republican primary in Alaska. She is favored but Alaska native Sarah Palin, who has a long and turbulent electoral relationship with Murkowski and her father, Frank, has endorsed the challenger.

So many appropriators leaving or being thrown out of Congress leads us to a plug for the piece we ran earlier this summer: "Is this the end of pork barrel politics?"