When I first came to Washington in 1969, one of the first members of Congress I met and talked to was George Mahon, a courtly, laconic conservative Southern Democrat who happened to be chairman of the House Appropriations Committee. We talked about the committee and its traditions, and he said to me, "If you want to know anything and everything about appropriations, read the Fenno book."
Mahon was referring to the magisterial The Power of the Purse: Appropriations Politics in Congress, a political-science classic by Richard Fenno, the role model for all congressional scholars. The book tells the story of a powerful committee that did not fit the contemporary stereotype of a panel larded with members eager to open the floodgates of taxpayer dollars, to fund any and every boondoggle for the benefit of their own districts and those of their colleagues. Instead, Appropriations, from the chairmanships of Republican John Taber and Democrat Clarence Cannon through Mahon and on for decades thereafter, was carefully filled by party leaders with lawmakers of both parties who saw their role as guardians of the public purse, looking with a jaundiced eye on excessive spending and working together to provide tough oversight of government programs. The committee had well-established norms that rewarded diligence, fairness, and bipartisanship.
I thought of Mahon, and Fenno, last week as I watched David Price of North Carolina give an eloquent, anguished speech on the floor of the House as it debated the Homeland Security appropriations bill. Price had a distinguished career himself as a congressional scholar before he came to Congress, and he continues to write insightfully about Congress from the inside (ask him for the paper he wrote for a recent conference at Yale). More important, he is an institutionalist to his core, a longtime member of Appropriations who venerates a deliberative process, bipartisan cooperation and action, and regular order.
Why was Price so distraught? The Homeland Security Subcommittee, on which he is the ranking Democrat, had brought a balanced, sensible bill to the floor, crafted with the participation and cooperation of members on both sides, to protect our homeland within severe budget constraints. The work inside the subcommittee had been a model of how the process should work -- but for a second year in a row, its work was threatened by a poison-pill amendment offered by that poster boy for radical nihilism, Steve King of Iowa. The amendment blew up the Dream Act, taking away all discretion from the Department of Homeland Security to focus its deportation resources on criminals and miscreants and forcing the department to end any deferral in the deportation process that enables "dreamers" to stay in the United States.