This month, three members of Congress have been beaten in their bids for re-election -- a Republican senator from Utah, a Democratic congressman from West Virginia and a Republican-turned-Democrat senator from Pennsylvania. Their records and their curricula vitae are different. But they all have one thing in common: They are members of an appropriations committee.
Like most appropriators, they have based much of their careers on bringing money to their states and districts. There is an old saying on Capitol Hill that there are three parties -- Democrats, Republicans and appropriators. One reason that it has been hard to hold down government spending is that appropriators of both parties have an institutional and political interest in spending.
Their defeats are an indication that spending is not popular this year. So is the decision, shocking to many Democrats, of House Appropriations Committee Chairman David Obey to retire after a career of 41 years. Obey maintains that the vigorous campaign of a young Republican in his district didn't prompt his decision. But his retirement is evidence that, suddenly this year, pork is not kosher.
It has long been a maxim of political scientists that American voters are ideologically conservative and operationally liberal. That is another way of saying that they tend to oppose government spending in the abstract but tend to favor spending on particular programs. It's another explanation of why the culture of appropriators continued to thrive after the Republican takeover of Congress in 1994 and during the eight years of George W. Bush's presidency.
In the past, rebellions against fiscal policy have concentrated on taxes rather than spending. In the 1970s, when inflation was pushing voters into higher tax brackets, tax revolts broke out in California and spread east. Ronald Reagan's tax cuts were popular, but spending cuts did not follow. Bill Clinton's tax increases led to the Republican takeover and to tax cuts at both the federal and state levels, but spending boomed under George W. Bush.
The rebellion against the fiscal policies of the Obama Democrats, in contrast, is concentrated on spending. The Tea Party movement began with Rick Santelli's rant in February 2009, long before the scheduled expiration of the Bush tax cuts in January 2011.