Robert Novak

WASHINGTON -- As Republican Rep. Ralph Regula of Ohio stepped off the House floor Dec. 8, he should have been happy. The House had just passed an omnibus appropriations bill packed with spending earmarked for individual projects, including plenty that Regula directed to his own state. Yet, he sounded a little peeved. "People in my district don't care a whole lot about what Novak thinks about it," he told Washington Post reporter Dan Morgan.

My column that morning listed a few of the succulent pork items in the $328 billion bill funding 11 government departments for which individual appropriations bills should have been passed by Oct. 1 but were not. The failure enables the congressional appropriators to earmark special projects without hearings, debate or concurrence from the Bush Administration's approval. "I know better than some bureaucrat what's good for my district," Regula told Morgan.

That might sound arrogant, but Regula was inadvertently revealing how the system really works. In the last fiscal year, earmarks rose 12 percent to reach $22.5 billion. Regula talks about taking care of "my district" (which he does), but his influence is nationwide. He is one of the "cardinals" -- chairmen of the House Appropriations Subcommittees. If a House member wants federal funds for his district, he had better kiss a cardinal's ring. That is why federal spending control might well start with real term limits on appropriators.

I first met Ralph Regula in 1965, when he was a young, first-term member of the Ohio House of Representatives. He was a soft-spoken gentleman of moderate ideology, and that has been his image for the past three decades in Washington since his election to Congress in 1972. He has neither courted nor sought out the television talk shows and has kept a low profile. But he became one of the most effective and, lately, one of the most feared appropriators.

He became a cardinal in 1995, heading the Interior Subcommittee. After six years, bogus term limits kicked in so that in 2001, he switched to an even more elevated position. As Labor-HHS-Education Subcommittee chairman, he controls more domestic spending than any other cardinal.

And does he ever control it. He personally added additional pension benefits for 2,500 retired employees (more than half of them Ohioans) of the former Republic Steel Corp. Regula and other Ohio members of Congress were given $152 million in the omnibus, much of it from Labor-HHS-Education.

Robert Novak

Robert Novak (1931-2009) was a syndicated columnist and editor of the Evans-Novak Political Report.

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