The Powerlessness of the Purse

For most of the past century, Congress has been deeply conflicted about its two Appropriations Committees. The late Speaker of the House Carl Albert once described the feelings of rank-and-file House members toward the Appropriations Committee when he was still serving as house majority leader in 1963:

Sure there is resentment against the committee. They have special privileges, let’s face it, and the other members get jealous. They meet all the time when Congress is in session. Their bills are privileged and come to the floor without a rule. They get special treatment from the departments. Their colleagues must reckon with them. They have a life and death power over things. You hear people say that isn’t fair. You hear that a lot. (But…) Anybody who tells you that [the Committee on] Post Office and Civil Service and [the Committee on] Appropriations are equal ought to have his head examined. They are the constituted authority, and once you start meddling with them you get into trouble. They are set up to do the job. So, I try to stay out of it as much as I can.

But most current members of the Appropriations Committee will tell you that the allure of serving on that committee has changed in recent years. Some outside observers have commented that the once vaunted “College of Cardinals”—a term used to describe the chairmen of the dozen or so Appropriation subcommittees—are now more like a rag tag band of parish priests.

This article is reprinted from Extensions, Summer 2012. Copyright 2012, Carl Albert Congressional Research and Studies Center, University of Oklahoma, all rights reserved.

This article was originally published in Extensions.