27th February 2011
The overhaul must penetrate deep into the committee’s longstanding culture, in which appropriators, their professional staff, and legions of lobbyists serve as a mutually reinforcing triad bent on increasing spending today, tomorrow, and forevermore.
In The Power of the Purse, the classic 1966 study of the appropriations process, political scientist Richard F. Fenno Jr. describes a set of mores within the post–World War II House and Senate committees that would shock today’s Washington cognoscenti. Appropriators of that era, it seems, saw their primary role as fiduciaries for beleaguered taxpayers — as protectors of the purse, as it were.
During those days, committee members viewed executive-branch bureaucrats warily, sensing that bureaucrats’ primary interest was in expanding their fiefdoms. Bureaucrats, committee members knew, padded their annual budget requests well beyond what was actually required to run their programs. The primary role of appropriators, committee members believed, was to serve as a counterweight to this tendency, paring back whatever budget requests the bureaucrats submitted. Their investigative and legislative energies were directed toward saving taxpayers a few hundred thousand dollars here, a few hundred thousand there.