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Press Release

    Caging the Cardinals

    12/03/2002

    Heeding the President’s wish for fiscal discipline, this week leaders of the House of Representatives announced a change in the way things are done in their chamber of Congress. House leaders have finally decided to reign in the free-spending “Cardinals” of the House Appropriations Committee. Mostly unknown outside of Washington Beltway, these “Cardinals” control the flow of hundreds of billions of dollars, which makes them some of the most powerful men in America.

    The “Cardinals” are the 13 chairmen of the subcommittees that comprise the powerful Appropriations Committee. Simply put, they have extreme sway over the government’s coffers. They influence how much of your tax dollars should be spent to fund most government programs – including those on earmarks, or better known as pork. They decide what gets funded and what doesn’t. They hold the keys to the federal government’s piggy bank.

    In a move that snatched the attention of the “Cardinals” and many in Washington, House Speaker Denny Hastert, new Majority Leader Tom Delay, and others in the leadership fired a clear warning shot across the appropriators’ bow when they decided that chairmanships of the subcommittees will, from here-on-out, be determined not by seniority as tradition holds, but by the Speaker himself. Why the abrupt change from easy, everyday living? Simple: Spending.

    Looking at the spending numbers lately, you probably couldn’t tell which party controls Congress. The profligate, unaccountable spending that gushes from the treasury’s coffers during Republican control of the House is truly astonishing. The credibility of the Republican mantra of lower taxes and less government is stretched thin when both House and Senate Appropriations Chairmen C.W. Bill Young and Ted Stevens together cry that spending levels set by the President and the House are too low, and that they need more money to fund an ever growing federal government. Moreover, the battle between the Appropriators’ penchant for spending tax dollars and Office of Management and Budget Director Mitch Daniels’ hawkish determination to control expenditures (colleagues once gave him a Samurai sword for his adroit ability to slice unnecessary costs in a budget), exemplifies the nature of the problem in Congress.

    The bottom line: too many in Congress are simply too accustomed to appropriating billions of dollars in tax dollars on federal, state, and district projects, that would be better utilized in the hands of consumers, entrepreneurs, and the marketplace.

    Hastert’s decision for change serves as a clear warning to the “Cardinals,” and by altering the status quo, Hastert created a simple incentive structure: in order to retain the chairmanship, control spending and cut the pork; and if you spend too much, get ready to give up your seat.

    This incentive structure isn’t exclusive of subcommittee chairmen. With control of chairmanships now in the Speaker’s hands, legislators who envision themselves holding the gavel of a subcommittee one day will think twice about funding that “needed” project back home or giving special tax treatment to certain lobbies. Needless to say, Hastert’s pronouncement ruffled some neatly preened feathers. However, for economic conservatives in America, it’s a decision that was welcomed and encouraged.

    Moreover, the timing on Hastert’s decision to reign-in appropriators is fortuitous for taxpayers. With the 108th Congress about to convene, the first item on the Congressional agenda will surely be appropriations for the 11 departments, which have been living on four continuing resolutions. Funding on some of the largest government bureaucracies (i.e., Labor, Health and Human Services, Transportation, and HUD Departments) will all be up for votes. No doubt that supporters for the usual earmarks and pork projects will line the corridors of the Capitol to try to finagle their interests into each and every bill up for a vote. (Worth mentioning: This year up to November, Congress appropriated more than 7,800 special interest earmarks paid for by taxpayers.) Appropriators will surely find themselves in a difficult spot: They can either bow to the wishes of lobbyists, or stick to fiscal discipline. The incentives are there to side with the latter.

    It seems like the House leadership finally caged the “Cardinals.” The next few months will prove if the plan works or if the Cardinals find a way to flee from the coop.