'The Appropriator in Winter': Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen's last stand

Jennifer Shutt, CQ-Roll Call on

Published in Political News

WASHINGTON -- New Jersey Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen is giving up the throne of what used to be the most sought-after seat at the Capitol after just one year.

The House Appropriations chairman is going out amid a blizzard of Republican infighting; lackluster presidential approval dragging down many of his "blue state" GOP colleagues; the increasing polarization of the electorate; and greater influence of Southern and Western conservatives at the expense of Northeastern moderates like himself.

And then there is the long, slow decline of the appropriations process, which lost its sheen for many when earmarks were banned, discretionary spending was slashed to the bone and "government by CR" became the rule rather than the exception.

It's enough to make even the scion of a political family with its roots in the Continental Congress, who dodged mortar fire and built roads while serving his country in Vietnam, want to run for the exits.

Frelinghuysen, who announced his retirement Jan. 29, at times must have felt a little like Eleanor of Aquitaine's character in the 1968 classic "The Lion in Winter," who says after being imprisoned by her husband King Henry II of England: "What family doesn't have its ups and downs?"

The New Jersey Republican spent that Monday morning calling and emailing a handful of colleagues to tell them that after nearly 24 years as a member of Congress and just over a year as chairman of one of the more powerful committees he would be retiring.

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The decision came after months of speculation about his political future amid lower-than-expected fundraising and blowback from conservatives after he initially withheld support for the bill to "repeal and replace" the 2010 health care law. There were also whispers of an effort to oust Frelinghuysen from the chairmanship for his vote against the GOP tax code overhaul.

Last week's sudden announcement, however, still took some by surprise. Frelinghuysen had hired Michael DuHaime, a partner at Mercury Public Affairs and a longtime Republican strategist, to run his campaign. He said in early January he was "having so much fun," when asked about speculation he would leave Congress after just one term as Appropriations chairman.

"I'm just looking forward to continuing my work to get the (fiscal) 2018 bills finally across the finish line," Frelinghuysen said on Jan. 10. "And I can't wait until we get the president's budget. And then we can get the (fiscal) 2019 bills together. Why would I want to miss that opportunity?"

After making the decision to retire, Frelinghuysen spoke with some of his subcommittee chairs. But many ended up learning about his upcoming departure and the race to succeed him in various news reports.


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