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January 04, 2013 11:30 AM Not Nice Work If You Can Get It: Good Luck to Senator Mikulski

By Keith Humphreys

The continually growing presence of women in Congress — now for the first time breaking into triple digits — is getting deserved attention. Another historic first of the 113th Congress: Senator Barbara Mikulski has become the first woman to Chair the Senate Appropriations Committee. How she got the job however reflects the unfortunate dysfunction of recent Congresses.

The legendary Robert Byrd of my home state of West Virginia knew the ins and outs of Congress better perhaps than any other 20th century Senator. When he was pressured by his party to step down as Majority Leader in 1989, he understood immediately that Appropriations Chair was the chip for which to trade. Some insiders at the time said the switch made him more rather than less powerful.

Some years later, I remember well Arlen Specter describing with evident delight the amount of money he would control as Appropriations Chair as being enough to fill the huge room in which we were standing with bills with Salmon P. Chase’s picture on them (That’s $10,000 for those of you scoring at home, even though they only printed a few hundred of them I got the point).

In contrast, when the Chair came open this year, no one seemed to want it. Patrick Leahy was first in line and said no thanks. Tom Harkin could have had it too, but wasn’t interested. Incredible as it would have seemed to the Robert Byrd of 1989, chairing Judiciary or HELP gives a Senator more power these days than chairing appropriations for the simple reason that the Congress just doesn’t pass spending bills much any more.

We have all accommodated to the most minimal of performance standards: A few federal departments get their appropriations but the rest are jammed year after year into a sloppy continuing resolution that is very much the product of a chamber-wide scrum rather than the deliberations of the appropriations committee. I doubt Mikulski can change this; I wish her luck. It would make her job more fun and powerful if she could, but of course the more important beneficiary would be, well, pretty much everyone who relies on government to do much of anything in a competent and responsive fashion.

[Cross-posted at The Reality-based Community]

Keith Humphreys is a professor of psychiatry and behavioral medicine at the Stanford University School of Medicine.