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The powerful spending committees on Capitol Hill will almost certainly be led by women next year, a historic first with the potential to right the nation’s derailed government funding process.
“I hope the Senate Appropriations Committee rises from the ashes,” Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) said of the impact women leaders will have on the panel, where he serves as a senior member. “I hope they will revive the traditional process and we’ll get bills moving again.”
With the committee’s top Democrat Patrick Leahy (Vt.) and Republican Richard Shelby (Ala.) both retiring, Sens. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) and Susan Collins (R-Maine) are in line to inherit their jobs.
Either could serve as chair or ranking member, depending on which party controls the Senate in 2023. The moves bolster a recent trend first set in the House, where Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.) is chair and Rep. Kay Granger (R-Texas) serves as the top Republican on Appropriations.
Women for the first time are in line to control all the top jobs overseeing more than $1.5 trillion in annual federal discretionary spending in 2023, regardless of most midterm election scenarios. In those slots, the lawmakers will set spending for the nation’s domestic and defense programs and help rewrite policies administered by federal agencies.
Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.), said she’s looking to Collins and Murray to get back to passing individual spending bills, giving lawmakers on both sides a chance to put their stamp on legislation. Lawmakers largely sidestepped passing each of the 12 major spending bills individually in recent years across both chambers, instead favoring continuing resolutions and omnibus spending bills crafted chiefly by leaders.
“I think both of them know we have to change,” said Capito, a committee member. “Everything can’t be done in the leadership rooms or negotiated by staff.”
‘Where the Money Goes’
Elevating Murray and Collins would follow a broader movement of women into leadership roles on both sides of the Capitol.
The House Appropriations Committee only got its first woman chair in 2019 when former Rep. Nita Lowey (D-N.Y.) took the gavel. Granger—who notes when she first won a House seat in 1997, the sole panel headed by a woman was the Select Committee on the Beauty Shop—joined her as ranking member.
After Lowey’s 2021 retirement, DeLauro—a House veteran since 1991—took the chair and Granger returned as ranking member. The two women could swap jobs if the GOP retakes the House in this fall’s midterm elections.
The changes point to progress beyond having a certain percentage of women in political office, according to Kelly Dittmar, president of the Center for American Women in Politics at Rutgers University.
“It’s having them in the most powerful decision-making roles,” Dittmar said. “And we know that in both the House and Senate and state legislatures across the country, appropriations are some of the most powerful positions because of the extent to which they get to control what gets funded and where the money goes.”
‘Buck the System’
Others point to the legislative and political skills of Murray, Collins, DeLauro, and Granger, not their gender.
“If you’re going to be successful and climb the ladder and achieve leadership position it’s because you’re delivering for your party, not because you’re delivering for the American people in a bipartisan way,” said Jennifer Lawless, a University of Virginia political scientist. “There’s no evidence to suggest that women for the last 20 years have engaged in any more bipartisanship behavior than men when it comes either to procedural votes or substantive votes.”
But women are coming to power at a time when appropriators are struggling to move their bills.
Traditionally appropriations committees move 12 separate bills to fund federal programs and agencies, and work to finish them before the government’s fiscal year begins on Oct. 1. In recent years they passed few bills separately and increasingly relied on massive omnibus packages that moved late in the year to close out work. That’s limited the power of committee members to shape spending and policy.
Leahy and Shelby only oversaw passage of three individual measures during the past two years, although the House passed six in a “minibus” package (H.R. 8294) this year. Lawmakers are yet again under pressure to wrap up all work via a massive omnibus package this December, and leave a clean slate for their successors. Before they can even get to that, the first order of business is to pass another emergency stopgap to head off a potential government shutdown when federal funding expires Sept. 30.
Covid-19 disruptions and leaders’ focus on pushing President Joe Biden’s top priorities complicated appropriators’ work in recent years. But as recently as three years ago the chambers marked up individual bills and took most to the floor.
The end result was timely enactment of two packages, one for defense-related bills and another for domestic measures, said Shannon Hines—Shelby’s former top aide, who served as the first and only woman staff director of the Senate committee.
“If you’ve got four people, no matter women or men, who are dedicated and want to get something done and are willing to buck the system,” such deals can be cut, said Hines, now senior vice president at aircraft manufacturer Textron Inc.
Narrow majorities and today’s caustic political environment could limit any renewed dealmaking, said Lawless. But Collins said her goal is to see all the bills moving in committee again, and added she favors “bundling” the measures for the floor in packages to attract broad support, a tactic her predecessors used.
Murray is fighting for a sixth term and focused on winning in November rather than potentially leading Appropriations. In her campaign against pro-life Republican Tiffany Smiley, she’s stressing abortion rights—particularly after Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) introduced legislation that would impose a nationwide abortion ban after 15 weeks.
“I don’t want to talk about what the future is. I’m focused on what we’re doing right now in my own election,” Murray said. “But I will say this: I think everybody wants to get an omnibus done and make a clean path for the future.”
Collins also noted they’ll be negotiating bills with a White House Office of Management and Budget led by a woman, Shalanda Young.
“It’s not only women in the Senate who are likely to be the head of the Appropriations Committee, but the House and the head of OMB is also a woman,” Collins said.
Murray, 71, was first elected in 1992 during the “year of the woman,” when she was one of four women to win Senate seats. Aside from then-Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.), the Senate’s ranks had only one other woman. Murray joined Appropriations as a freshman in 1993 and now has a chance at the gavel after 30 years. Mikulski is the only woman to chair the panel.
Collins, 69, didn’t win her first term until 1996, but already spent several years as an aide to former Sen. William Cohen (R-Maine) before leaving to work in state government.
Over the years Murray pursued a liberal agenda and rose to the No. 3 slot in Democratic leadership behind Durbin and Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.). She chaired the Budget and Veterans’ Affairs panels before claiming the gavel at the Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee.
Collins, now the Senate’s longest serving Republican woman, chaired the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee in the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001 terror attacks. After serving as Homeland’s ranking member, Collins joined Appropriations in 2009.
Often a reliable Republican vote, Collins still sponsored many bills with Democrats including Murray, and refused to support GOP efforts to repeal the Affordable Care Act (Public Law 111-148). She negotiated with Democrats to create the Paycheck Protection Program helping small businesses during the Covid-19 pandemic and develop the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law (Public Law 117-58).
‘Bastion of Common Sense’
The lawmakers’ different approaches are reflected in annual bipartisan rankings by Georgetown University’s McCourt School of Public Policy. The school ranked Collins second for bipartisanship last year while Murray came in 81st of 100.
Despite the style difference, they’ve closely collaborated at Appropriations. Beginning in 2011 they led the Transportation, Housing, and Urban Development Subcommittee and wrote transportation spending bills together for years.
Appropriations “remains a bastion of common sense, of collegiality, and of working together to seek common ground,” Collins said.
Homeland security also has been a shared interest, with Collins and Murray cosponsoring legislation to increase port security. They held a 2006 press event in Murray’s home state to express opposition to a Bush administration-backed plan to sell US port operations to Dubai Ports World because some 9/11 hijackers were based in the United Arab Emirates.
“Both are effective in what they do and have unique leadership roles in the Senate,” said Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), who for several years has been Murray’s partner at the top of the Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education Subcommittee. “They’re going to bring substantial skills they spent a large part of their careers developing.”
Collins made clear in her 2020 race for a fifth term she’s ready to take the gavel, running ads highlighting money she delivered to Maine. She’s also expected to take Shelby’s top slot on the Defense Subcommittee, a plumb for a state with a defense contracting industry anchored by shipbuilder General Dynamics Corps.’ Bath Iron Works.
While Murray won’t confirm, other Democrats said she’s expected to take the Appropriations slot. Lately she’s highlighting how her perch helps Washington state, home to Amazon.com Inc., Starbucks Corp., and major Boeing Co. production facilities.
“Congressionally directed spending is just another way I can make sure Washington State communities are heard in the other Washington—whether it’s securing direct funding for salmon recovery, affordable housing, or local infrastructure,” Murray said on the campaign trail.
Murray and Collins still face difficulties, particularly if the House flips and Republicans bent on cutting federal spending once again gain the upper hand, according to Bill Hoagland, senior vice president of the Bipartisan Policy Center and former adviser for Senate GOP leaders on budget policy.
Appropriators also may contend with an early dustup over the federal debt limit, which lawmakers expect to hit sometime next year. Conservatives could push to revive the Budget Control Act (Public Law 112-25), a 2011 law that capped discretionary spending for a decade, Hoagland said. The caps severely limited appropriators’ ability to develop and move bills.
“They themselves could do a lot together but they still have to deal with these forces, including the presidential election cycle politics,” Hoagland said.
Besides spending levels, partisan fights loom over policy riders involving abortion, environment, and energy policy. And tight margins in both chambers also would translate into less flexibility for dealmaking, Lawless said.
“When you have such narrow margins there’s even more of a premium placed on party loyalty,” she said. “So whether you’re a man or a woman, it becomes that much more difficult to cross party lines.”
To contact the reporter on this story: Nancy Ognanovich in Washington at firstname.lastname@example.org