One of the most surprising political events of 2012 was Vermont Senator Patrick Leahy’s decision not to become chairman of the powerful Appropriations Committee.
Leahy is the Senate’s longest-serving member. In a system built on seniority, the Appropriations Committee chairmanship is usually considered the top prize.
Leahy and his staff say he still wields strong influence on money issues. And they point to recent legislation that would help Vermont recover from Tropical Storm Irene as an example.
Leahy is 72 now, his voice sometimes rough with age.
But he went to the Senate as a 34-year-old county prosecutor, whose come-from-behind victory surprised even himself. Chris Graff is a former correspondent for the Associated Press and covered Leahy’s first campaign in 1974.
"He had a great line where he said in his election night victory speech that night, ‘I was told to prepare two speeches for tonight: one if I lose, and one if I lose badly,’" Graff recalled.
Leahy squeaked to victory 38 years ago, carried by a wave of anti-Republican sentiment prompted by the Watergate scandal. 1980 was another close election, but in his later contests – particularly after 1986 – Leahy has proved untouchable.
Graff says the pinnacle of any senator’s career is the chairmanship of the Appropriations Committee. Leahy became first in line to get the job when the former chairman, Hawaii Senator Daniel Inouye, died last month.
"If you are a golfer, you want to win the Masters," Graff says. " If you are a United States Senator you want to be chairman of appropriations."
That’s because any spending decision by the federal government must pass through that committee. And the chairman holds the power to set the committee’s agenda and guide its decisions. Past chairmen have been able to direct immense amounts of money to their home states.
So Graff and other political observers were shocked late last month when Leahy rejected the chairmanship of the money committee. Vermont’s senior senator chose instead to stay as head of the Judiciary Committee. He says he’ll use the position to protect civil liberties, shepherd President Obama’s Supreme Court nominees and possibly strengthen federal gun control laws.
"I realized I could have the best of all possible worlds. I’d be the senior-most person on Appropriations, which means that everybody knows I could take the chairmanship if I wanted. So I really get deference to issues of my concern," he says. "But I’m also chairman of Judiciary, which handles so many issues that that affect all Americans."
Will Leahy’s decision to decline the Appropriations chair hurt Vermont, a small state dependent on federal help, especially in recovering from Tropical Storm Irene?
Lobbyist Bob Sherman thinks so. He’s observed Vermont politics over four decades as a journalist, political insider and lobbyist. Sherman says Leahy just rejected a top prize in Congressional politics.
"Let’s not pretend that the Congress isn’t a political institution, governed by political rules and served by politicians. You shouldn’t apologize for being political. It’s an institution that controls the flow of funding and Vermont is very dependent on (federal) funds. I mean flood relief, health care reform, any number of things where being chairman of the Appropriations Committee would help the state of Vermont," he says.
Sherman’s opinion is shared, but not voiced publicly, by some others on the Vermont political scene. But Gov. Peter Shumlin says Leahy has always been able to direct federal money to Vermont and will continue to. Shumlin cites as an example a pair of Leahy amendments dealing with Tropical Storm Irene.
"What I know about Pat Leahy is this: He cares about one thing, the state of Vermont. And he cares about it so much he delivers for us time and time again," Shumlin says. "On the subject of FEMA, it’s not insignificant that Leahy has tucked into a bill that we expect to pass in January that could well continue to help Vermont in significant ways as we try to recover from Irene."
The first Irene-related amendment would make it easier for the state to use federal money to build a replacement for the Waterbury state hospital. The second provision would address a long-running dispute between the state and the Federal Emergency Management Agency. FEMA has refused to reimburse towns for larger bridges and culverts that could withstand future floods. The Leahy language makes that reimbursement possible by declaring that Vermont’s culvert standards comply with FEMA regulations.
University of Vermont Political Science Professor Garrison Nelson, who studies Congress and congressional committees, says the power of the Appropriations chair has been diminished by reforms aimed at curbing abuse of congressional earmarks. And Nelson’s confident that the new Appropriations chair – Maryland Senator Barbara Mikulski – will make sure Vermont gets the money it needs.
"Vermont is not going to suffer with Barbara Mikulski because she and Sen. Leahy are very close and very friendly," he says. "So she will make sure that Vermont is not overlooked in any kind of appropriation."
But Bob Sherman, the Montpelier lobbyist, says the Appropriations chairman remains one of the most powerful people in Washington.
"And it’s really unfortunate that he decided not to take the job. And I can only hope that he decided to stay on Judiciary so he can move and advance a meaningful assault weapons ban and the reform of our gun laws," he says.
Leahy’s staff says his power over money issues will continue. They point out that both Irene provisions were included in a disaster relief bill before Leahy became the most senior member of the Appropriations Committee. So they say it’s obvious that Leahy will have even more influence now.
The two Irene provisions are expected to be voted on later this month.