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

Jennifer Shutt, CQ-Roll Call on

Published in Political News

Frelinghuysen said he plans to focus on completing the fiscal 2018 appropriations process and re-establishing "regular order" for the House's fiscal 2019 appropriations process -- shorthand for passing the 12 spending bills on time -- before he leaves Congress.

That work will keep him in Washington and not solely focused on re-election, which was a factor in his decision. "Obviously, focusing on that makes it difficult to spend a lot of time campaigning back in the district, so there was sort of a choice that I had to make," Frelinghuysen said.

Once he had made his decision, Frelinghuysen chose to only tell a small group of lawmakers, including a few of his GOP subcommittee "cardinals." He informed Energy-Water Chairman Mike Simpson of Idaho; Interior-Environment Chairman Ken Calvert of California as well as Cole before the announcement, for instance. But State-Foreign Operations Chairman and former full committee Chairman Harold Rogers of Kentucky, Commerce-Justice-Science Chairman John Culberson of Texas, and Military Construction-VA Chairman Charlie Dent of Pennsylvania, who is also retiring, were not told.

Frelinghuysen also didn't tell the panel's top Democrat, Nita M. Lowey of New York, or give a heads up to Senate Appropriations Chairman Thad Cochran of Mississippi. House Speaker Paul D. Ryan's office did not respond to a request for comment on when and how he learned of Frelinghuysen's retirement plans.

Simpson, who announced Friday he was joining the race for top Republican on Appropriations, got a call from Frelinghuysen about 15 minutes before the official announcement went out. The Idaho congressman thought his decision to retire was based on several factors.

"I think it's a combination of things. One, is he has a tough re-election and two is that he's kind of frustrated with the way we're not getting our appropriations work done," Simpson said. "I think it's also that he sees a lot of his friends retiring.

All 12 of the House Appropriations-drafted fiscal 2018 bills have been approved by the House, but the spending levels they were written to as well as the conservative policy included in that legislation meant the bills were dead on arrival in the Senate. Before any appropriations bills can be signed into law, congressional leaders need to agree on spending levels. So far, those talks have been between the party leaders in each chamber and the White House. They've also largely left out appropriators.

While Frelinghuysen controls the committee schedule, a difficult primary season could lead to a shortened legislative calendar and a desire by Republican leaders to keep contentious bills off the floor -- that could include appropriations bills that will substantially increase discretionary spending and drive up the deficit. It's also unlikely that leadership will allow an open amendment process on spending bills while fighting to maintain the majority. That means any potential debate on spending bills will be highly restricted.

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And a bad result for Republicans in November would affect the timing and politics of the appropriations process during the lame-duck session that would follow.

It would also render the current four-way race for Appropriations chairman among Republicans, reminiscent of King Henry II's children competing for the throne, moot.

That fact is not lost on Simpson, who is fourth in committee seniority behind Frelinghuysen. "We need to make sure that we maintain the majority first," he said.

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