Not Nice Work If You Can Get It: Good Luck to Senator Mikulski

The continually growing presence of women in Congress — now for the first time breaking into triple digits — is getting deserved attention. Another historic first of the 113th Congress: Senator Barbara Mikulski has become the first woman to Chair the Senate Appropriations Committee. How she got the job however reflects the unfortunate dysfunction of recent Congresses.

The legendary Robert Byrd of my home state of West Virginia knew the ins and outs of Congress better perhaps than any other 20th century Senator. When he was pressured by his party to step down as Majority Leader in 1989, he understood immediately that Appropriations Chair was the chip for which to trade. Some insiders at the time said the switch made him more rather than less powerful.

Some years later, I remember well Arlen Specter describing with evident delight the amount of money he would control as Appropriations Chair as being enough to fill the huge room in which we were standing with bills with Salmon P. Chase’s picture on them (That’s $10,000 for those of you scoring at home, even though they only printed a few hundred of them I got the point).

In contrast, when the Chair came open this year, no one seemed to want it. Patrick Leahy was first in line and said no thanks. Tom Harkin could have had it too, but wasn’t interested. Incredible as it would have seemed to the Robert Byrd of 1989, chairing Judiciary or HELP gives a Senator more power these days than chairing appropriations for the simple reason that the Congress just doesn’t pass spending bills much any more.

We have all accommodated to the most minimal of performance standards: A few federal departments get their appropriations but the rest are jammed year after year into a sloppy continuing resolution that is very much the product of a chamber-wide scrum rather than the deliberations of the appropriations committee. I doubt Mikulski can change this; I wish her luck. It would make her job more fun and powerful if she could, but of course the more important beneficiary would be, well, pretty much everyone who relies on government to do much of anything in a competent and responsive fashion.

Author: Keith Humphreys

Keith Humphreys is the Esther Ting Memorial Professor of Psychiatry at Stanford University and an Honorary Professor of Psychiatry at Kings College London. His research, teaching and writing have focused on addictive disorders, self-help organizations (e.g., breast cancer support groups, Alcoholics Anonymous), evaluation research methods, and public policy related to health care, mental illness, veterans, drugs, crime and correctional systems. Professor Humphreys' over 300 scholarly articles, monographs and books have been cited over thirteen thousand times by scientific colleagues. He is a regular contributor to Washington Post and has also written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Monthly, San Francisco Chronicle, The Guardian (UK), The Telegraph (UK), Times Higher Education (UK), Crossbow (UK) and other media outlets.

7 thoughts on “Not Nice Work If You Can Get It: Good Luck to Senator Mikulski”

  1. So the job finally went to a woman because the men didn’t want it anymore. Oh, progress!

  2. “Incredible as it would have seemed to the Robert Byrd of 1989, chairing Judiciary or HELP gives a Senator more power these days than chairing appropriations for the simple reason that the Congress just doesn’t pass spending bills much any more.”

    Right NOW they don’t. Is the assumption that they never will again? Maybe Mikulski is simply playing a longer game than the Republicans, who seem so intoxicated these days with a bizarre blend of christian millennialism, “Obama is turning us communist” apocalypticism, and the simultaneous assumption that any day now they’ll control the government and can abolish all taxes forever, that they seem completely incapable of planning more than two months in advance. (And if you think I’m exaggerating, tell me WHAT their plan is for America in say 2030. How do they imagine everything from infrastructure to pensions to healthcare will be funded? DETAILS — not some vague BS about “reducing waste” and “privatization”).

  3. So how did it come to be that the Senate appropriations chair no longer has any power?
    The post jumps ahead 24 years, without discussing what happened in the meantime. Is this a problem with the House not passing bills, so the Senate can’t add their two cents? The decline in earmarked appropriations? Something related to Harry Reid’s control of the Senate or McConnel’s filibuster?

    I have a friend who, when told of Republican follies, also responds that Harry Reid can’t get a budget passed in the Senate, so both sides, etc. I’d like to offer rebuttal, but am not really sure of the appropriate response.

    1. The appropriate response is elementary, and trivially simple: Harry Reid can’t get ANYTHING passed because of the stupid “Two track/phony filibuster” rules they’ve got. Go back to the way the Senate used to run. It took a lot of votes to kill a filibuster, but while it was going on, the sumbich had to REALLY filibuster, so everyone in the whole country could see very clearly who was standing on the track and holding up not only that train but the whole darn railroad.

      You might have a lot more legislation, and appointments, coming to a vote then.

  4. Actually, about 150,000 of those $10,000 bills with Chases’s picture were printed – still not enough to fill a room. I believe less than 200 are still in private hands. [A nice $10,000 bill sells for $50,000 or more these days as a collector’s item.]

    1. Do you have a citation for that? I’d always heard it was a much smaller print run but can’t document it.

  5. I was just thinking about Senator Byrd. I had just finished reading the chapter on the Constitution in President Obama’s book, The Audacity of Hope. He begins and ends the chapter talking about Senator Byrd. West Virginia is also my home state though I have not lived there for over 20 years. It is interesting how those of us from there refer to it as our “home” state regardless of how long we have been gone.

    I agree the old rules for filibustering should be brought back. I remember seeing Senator Byrd in person in 1988 “filibustering” the real way.

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