Norm Dicks, who had a reputation for bringing money home to his district, held a seat on the House Appropriations Committee his entire congressional career. If the 2012 election had been as good for Democrats as the 1976 election was, Derek Kilmer might have too.
Dicks, who held the seat for 36 years, was elected in a year that saw Democrat Jimmy Carter elected president. His party had 292 seats in Congress, more than twice the 143 held by Republicans. Democrats had only picked up one seat that election, but there was enough movement that it created room for a freshman congressman from Belfair to claim a spot on a coveted committee.
Kilmer, by contrast, joined Congress when Democrats were in the minority, holding 201 seats. Committee numbers are devised based on party ratios. Western Democrats backed Kilmer for the committee to party leaders when he was first elected, Dicks said. The argument then was the same as it was this time around, that with Dicks’ departure from Congress the Pacific Northwest would not be represented.
It wasn’t the worst environment for the party to take a risk on a rookie. It had picked up a seat on the committee and five Democrats had left, but the vacancies were filled by six veteran Democrats.
After the 2014 election Democrats lost seats, but not in Appropriations. Kilmer’s regional backing, along with his track record in his relatively short congressional career, made a bigger difference this time around. Despite Democratic losses in the November election he got the nod when Rep. Adam Schiff of California left the committee to become ranking member of the House Select Committee on Intelligence.
Subcommittee assignments, which are expected to be made in the next week, are a matter of what’s available. Dicks said the basic process is that members with three assignments pick one to put into a pool to add to the ones left behind by Schiff. Kilmer will get to pick two from the pool. Dicks was on Defense and Interior. Schiff was on neither of those, so if they are in the pool it won”t be coming from him. It may take a few years for Kilmer to grab Defense, Dicks said.
The former congressman said the Appropriations assignment is huge for this district and for Kilmer. “It’s still the best committee in terms of bipartisanship,” he said. Besides working across the aisle, he will have the benefit of working across the capitol building in the Senate, where Washington Sen. Patty Murray sits on that chamber’s Appropriations Committee.
You don’t have to link all the benefits to the region as pork. You can if you like, but someone has to sit on Appropriations and oversee government spending. It doesn’t hurt us that it’s someone local. Should Kilmer eventually make it onto Defense there are obvious benefits to having someone who can argue for the shipyard and the bases. There are obvious benefits to having someone on Appropriations who has been through the district enough that dollar figures are actually connected to pictures. How strident a member of Congress is on hometown issues is another question, but having someone with a distinct awareness of what’s happening here has to be a benefit.
There is another, potentially unsavory, advantage of having a local ascend to the powerful committee, one that some thought would go away when earmarks were banned. But politicians want to bring home the bacon for their constituents, so they will figure out ways to extract more money for the district. One way they do it now is by writing letters to agencies asking for specific funding. The more powerful your member of Congress is, the more likely a letter penned by your rep will have more weight. A letter from someone on Appropriations ranks pretty high. And the longer Kilmer stays in Congress, the higher the clout. The bad news for those interested in transparency is it’s not as easy to track as earmarks once were, at least not yet.