October 14, 2020
How Changes to the Appropriations Committee Are a Microcosm for Changes to the House of Representatives
While the winner of the presidential election and the controlling party of the Senate is yet to be decided, Democrats are widely expected to maintain control of the House and perhaps even expand their majority. This does not, however, mean that there won’t be notable changes to powerful committees as long-serving members retire and new members take the helm, bringing with them different perspectives and priorities.
The House Appropriations Committee reflects this new reality better than perhaps any other in Congress.
In October 2019, current Chairwoman Nita Lowey (D-NY) announced that she would be retiring from Congress after the expiration her current term, leaving a coveted vacancy atop one of Congress’ most powerful committees. Lowey, the first woman in history to serve as chair, is widely respected by her colleagues on both sides of the aisle and her vast amount of experience will be deeply missed. During her tenure, Lowey worked with her Republican counterpart, Rep. Kay Granger (R-TX), to help resolve the longest government shutdown in history. In her retirement announcement, Rep. Granger was effusive in her praise for Lowey, mentioning that she had “kept her promise” to be an “honest broker” and lauded their ability to “disagree without being disagreeable.”
The question of who will replace her at the top of the committee is an open one and will likely remain so until after the election. Rep. Lowey had previously beaten out a fellow Democrat with more seniority – Rep. Marcy Kaptur (D-OH) – to take the top position on the committee.
While Rep. Kaptur would once against have the most seniority on the committee, the race is a dead heat between Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-CT), currently the Chairwoman of the Labor, HHS, and Education Subcommittee and Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-FL), the Chairwoman of the Military Construction and Veterans Affairs Subcommittee.
Lowey’s departure is not the only notable retirement on the Democratic side of the Appropriations Committee. Rep. Pete Visclosky (D-IN), who has served in the House for 36 years and is the dean of Indiana’s congressional delegation, also announced his retirement last fall. Visclosky has served as the lead Democrat on the Defense Subcommittee since 2013. Additionally, Rep. José Serrano (D-NY), the Chairman of the Commerce, Justice, Science Subcommittee announced that he would not return for the 117th Congress after he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s last year. Serrano is the longest-serving Hispanic legislator in Congress, having represented the Bronx since a special election victory in 1990. The retirements of Reps. Lowey, Visclosky and Serrano mean that the Appropriations Committee will be without three of the four most senior members to begin the 117th Congress.
While Republicans have three members of the committee retiring, only one of them – Rep. Tom Graves (R-GA) – holds a leadership position. Rep. Graves has served in the House for twelve years and is the Ranking Member of the Financial Services Subcommittee. Graves, who also served as the Vice-Chairman of the Modernization of Congress Committee, recently resigned his seat, stating that it didn’t feel right to “kill time on the taxpayer dime” to serve until the end of the Congress when all of his Committee work had already been completed.
With these retirements, the House is losing a vast store of institutional knowledge about the appropriations process and the federal programs for which the committee provides funding. These members had a knack for cutting through partisanship and reaching deals across the aisle, traits that are seemingly in short supply these days. In addition to the voids they will leave on the Appropriations Committee, these members come from districts that are expected to remain in their parties’ control, which will give an interesting glimpse of the types of new members that we will see in the 117th Congress.
Rep. Graves, who touted “tone, rhetoric and civility” in his farewell speech on the House floor, will be replaced by Georgia businesswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene, whose controversial stances on issues, including support for the baseless QAnon conspiracy theory and attacks on a sitting member of Congress, have been both embraced and condemned by House Republican leaders.
While the candidates on the Democratic side who are slated to replace appropriators may not represent such a drastic shift, they are indicative of the increasing strength of progressive candidates. Setting aside Frank Mrvan, Rep. Visclosky’s hand-picked replacement who will continue his brand of practical, Midwestern democratic politics, Reps. Lowey and Serrano’s successors are more reflective of the new brand of progressive politics.
Rep. Serrano’s seat will be filled by Ritchie Torres, a young and openly gay city councilman from the South Bronx. Torres served as a Sanders delegate for the 2016 Democratic National Convention and has stated that housing is his top priority. Torres, an Afro-Latino, drew attention this summer when he penned an op-ed decrying the “antiquated” rules of two powerful Democratic caucuses, the Congressional Black Caucus and the Congressional Hispanic Caucus that prevent him from joining both groups. While Rep. Serrano was one of the more liberal members of the Democratic Caucus, Torres marks both a generational and tonal shift.
Rep. Lowey’s 17th district will undergo perhaps the starkest change on the Democratic side. Mondaire Jones, a lawyer and former Justice Department staffer who had filed to primary Lowey before she announced her retirement, is on track to succeed her. Jones has prioritized a wide variety of progressive priorities, including student loan debt and climate change. Interestingly, Jones also used Rep. Lowey’s position on the Appropriations Committee to intimate Lowey had “failed” to hold the Trump administration accountable on a variety of immigration funding issues. Pointing directly to primary victories scored by progressives like Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Jones said that he was motivated to fight the “conventional wisdom… that… young people, people of color – had to wait their turn.” Jones will be a much more progressive member of the House than his predecessor and his eagerness to primary such a long-sitting member may be indicative of his willingness to take on House Democratic leadership.
The loss of many senior members on the committee, setting aside any additional losses that may come on Election Day, will change the complexion of the committee in the 117th Congress and open seats for a new generation of appropriators. It is important to start planning how these changes, as well as the changes to the district representations themselves, will impact specific issues going forward.