WASHINGTON — The thick binder is dominated by a drawing of a chubby Uncle Sam, with shirt buttons straining against his girth, and a fleshy hand open and outstretched.
“Uncle Needs a Diet,” declares the package assembled by Rep. Jerry Lewis, R-Calif., one of three candidates in the race for one of the most powerful, and now paradoxical, jobs in government: leading the House Appropriations Committee in the new Congress as the Republican leadership tries to transform the panel from a fountain of federal spending into ground zero for budget cutting.
Selecting a chairman — a party vote is expected Tuesday — is the first step in perhaps the most audacious aspect of the plan by Rep. John A. Boehner, the incoming Republican speaker, to alter the way the House works. Like Lewis, the two other leading candidates, Rep. Harold Rogers of Kentucky and Rep. Jack Kingston of Georgia, are campaigning to convince their party’s leadership that they can cast aside their own histories as earmarkers and pork-allocators and lead a shift in focus from how to spend to how to save.
To make the effort more than a slogan will mean upending one of the most entrenched cultures in Washington, a bipartisan tradition of directing money to favored causes with an eye as much to political gain as to policy outcome. Under both parties, the committee has long been a power unto itself, a secretive realm where subcommittee chairmen hold sway over Cabinet secretaries and generals, and financing can almost magically materialize or disappear for little-scrutinized local projects even as national priorities are set or dismissed.
Leading the committee toward a belt-tightening mandate would also mean taking on an entire industry that has been built up around the federal trough, a complex of lobbyists, consultants and corporations that feeds off the competition for dollars and with some regularity produces scandals — and provides a substantial chunk of the campaign contributions that fuel the U.S. political system.
“It has been a favor factory for years, and now it is going to become a slaughterhouse,” said Rep. Jeff Flake, an Arizona Republican and longtime antagonist of the Appropriations Committee who Monday was endorsed by Boehner to be one of several anti-spending conservatives to be seated on the panel. “It is going to get ugly.”
All the candidates for chairman have more than 15 years on the committee, and all have hungrily sought earmarks. According to Taxpayers for Common Sense, in the last fiscal year, Lewis won 62 earmarks worth $97.6 million, followed by Rogers with 59 costing $93.4 million and Kingston 40 worth $66.8 million.